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E Pluribus Unum, Darmstadt Style

New York
Starr Theatre, Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Centre
08/10/2009 -  
Franz Josef Haydn: Symphony No. 45 in f-sharp minor (“Farewell”)
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Kontra-Punkte, No. 1
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453

Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Conductor and conductor-pianist)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (© Felix Broede)

Pierre Laurent Aimard is usually noted as a conductor, pianist and lecturer. But Mr. Aimard can be a missionary as well, his enthusiasm for the most difficult music of the last century that of an amiable zealot. I say “last century”, since the music of this 21st Century is usually fairly simple compared to the acolytes of the Darmstadt School. When one remembers that Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose name is almost synonymous with entangled, mathematical works which demand explanation, was writing his music some 60 years ago, just a few years after the death of Anton Webern, then it seems strange we in 2009 need explanation.

But Stockhausen is rarely played in major concert halls these days, and could be considered something of a relic. Not, though, for Pierre-Laurent Aimard, whose own recitals swing naturally from Bach to Ligeti, from Schumann to Schoenberg.

So it was last night, when Mr. Aimard conducted three works, played piano for one, and gave a lengthy but delightful educational “tour” of Stockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte (Counterpoint). It was exhaustively illustrated by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, told with droll respectful comments (“A little theatrical game”) and non-technical explanations of how the themes bounced from one duet of instruments to the other, ending finally on a single piano timbre.

Added to this was the obvious relationship to Haydn’s preceding “Farewell” symphony which began with a full ensemble and dribbled down to a pair of violins. That, though, was Haydn’s equivalent of a union petition to management! Stockhausen had more ideological (and to the uninitiated, more obscure) reasons.

Mr. Aimard made a terrific verbal case for audience concentration, so the full house at the new Alice Tully Hall did indeed make the effort. Certainly with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, they got the best they could expect. Admittedly, at times the only way I could retain interest (for the 15-minute work seems infinitely longer than the preceding 30-minute Haydn) was picturing a World Cup soccer team passing the ball from player to player. Even here, though, the darting tone clusters, the mini-cadenzas kicked from piccolo to trombone to piano, to almost muted threads was not as amiable or transparent as Mr. Aimard might have desired.

Ironically, the piece seemed a bit old-fashioned in our world of eclectic paths. Stockhausen was always experimenting, which may be wonderful. But at some point, we do like to have the results of an experiment in more user-friendly terms.

Still, it was a delight to hear the Chamber Orchestra of Europe once again, led by one of its featured artists. The contrast between this full, rather romantic little group (about 50 players) in the resonant Alice Tully Hall was a shock compared to the dry accuracy of the Mostly Mozart Orchestra across the street. But one quickly became accustomed to this luscious sound in the Haydn 45th Symphony, given an exuberant performance until the last “joke” adagio.

Unfortunately, instead of the players exiting off the stage (as they could do in the tiny Esterházy concert hall), they each went to the wall, backs to the audience. That effect was almost frightening, resembling a Peter Sellars stylized vision of Bosnian prisoners about to be executed.

For the final Mozart 17th Concerto, Mr. Aimard propped the full score on the piano, and attempted both performing and conducting. Neither was entirely successful. When soloist and orchestra were playing, the balance was squarely with the latter, as any full-time conductor should know. During the Mozart cadenzas, Mr. Aimard played with his usual delicacy and intensity. The last movement variations, though, had as much orchestral color as pianistic virtuosity, the result being a kaleidoscope of delightful patterns.

Harry Rolnick



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