September 5, 2011

An Intimate Evening of Piano Music

Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays at the musikfest berlin


Franz Liszt
La lugubre gondola Nr. 2
Richard Wagner
Sonata in Ab major ("Für das Album von Frau M.W.")
Franz Liszt
Nuages gris
Alban Berg
Sonata for piano op. 1
Franz Liszt
Unstern! - Sinistre
Alexander Scriabin
Sonata No. 9 op. 68 ("Black Mass")
Franz Liszt
Sonata in b minor


Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Piano

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An Intimate Evening of Piano Music

Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays at the musikfest berlin

by Nancy Chapple / Photo: Felix Broede / Deutsche Grammophon

Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Photo: Felix Broede / Deutsche Grammophon

Some people can't look away when a classy sports car drives by or a beautiful woman sashays across their path. My weakness is exquisitely conceived piano programs—they draw me in every time.

I feel like I'm already acquainted with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, as if I met him at a party of wonderful eccentric geniuses where we may not have talked in person but I had a chance to observe him up close. That's because I saw a 2010 documentary film that focuses on his close collaboration with his favorite Steinway piano tuner: Pianomania — Die Suche nach dem perfekten Klang. Aimard is looking for a very precise sound on the pianos he plays and records on, and in the film he tries to define just what that is. Since the tuner Stefan Knüpfer and Aimard are connected in my mind, I found myself hoping to see the both of them at the concert. But in fact the evening with Aimard was so intense that one needed nothing and no one else.

The hall was completely sold out. He began his first late Liszt piece. Someone coughed, and then I did as well, immediately feeling guilty. And then a cell phone went off, and after just two rings, the artist stood up and left the stage. Consternation in the audience would he come back? Would he be willing to play for us at all now? Would he punish us, as I've experienced Keith Jarrett do? Given his decision to play all six works on the first half of the program without leaving the stage, without closing the score, without giving us a chance to applaud, it was clear he would need to draw on huge powers of concentration to make it work.

The late Liszt pieces were stark and spare, not lush and in no way virtuosic; often in octaves, in slow tempos, forcing one to really focus on the individual intervals of the lines. Drastic, elemental. Each of the one-movement sonatas from which they were set off like bookends was astonishing. I'd never heard of Wagner's sonata—starting off with a beautiful melodic theme, from there through-composed, with unpredictable changes in tempo, mood and harmonic landscape, yearning expressed with appoggiaturas. Aimard's tone is so rounded, such bliss to listen to—every single note resonates roundly, and then fits into the larger line.

Liszt's Nuages gris starts with the same intervals as the Berg Sonata: a perfect fourth and then a tritone. What a beautiful idea to play them one after another. The former piano student in me followed the scores for Berg and Scriabin. It was a demanding program for the pianist but also for the listeners: they were asked to concentrate to the utmost together with the pianist, and the Kammermusiksaal is a hall where one hears every little sound. I do wonder what people who don't follow along with the score think while attending the concert, what they hear. I find Scriabin in particular so hard to hold onto, not comparable, for instance, to a Debussy work, with a series of recognizable fleeting images.

Did I mention that half a life ago I spent seven years of my life studying piano at music conservatory? The Liszt and the Chopin sonatas in b-minor were the pieces that only those among us with highly developed technique—and the ambition to become one of the world's virtuosic solo pianists—dared to program on our senior and master's recitals. We all attended many piano classes, master classes, recitals where the pianistic stallions tried their very best to get the complex pieces across. I wasn't that kind of piano student, and that was the last time I'd heard the piece.

Aimard's performance of the Liszt Sonata was simply riveting, every note, every phrase. Nowhere were his fortissimos hammering, never did he create a sound that made you cringe with its sharpness and I well know that it can be tempting to exaggerate in this direction. His high point towards the end was amazing: truly larger and more sexually satisfying than any of the other climaxes that came before.

We called him back to the stage six times, but Pierre-Laurent Aimard chose not to play any encores—his show, his prerogative.