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Fascinatin’ Rhythms

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
10/25/2018 -  
Béla Bartók: Mikrokosmos: 69. Bulgarian Rhythm, 113. Chord and Trill Study, 123. Perpetuum mobile, 127. Short Canon and its Inversion, 135. New Hungarian Folk Song, 145. Chromatic Invention & 146. Ostinato
Maurice Ravel: Sites auriculaires
Harrison Birtwistle: Keyboard Engine, Construction for Two Pianos (American Premiere)
Olivier Messiaen: Visions de l’Amen

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich (Duo-Pianists)

P.-L. Aimard, T. Stefanovich (© Marco Borgreve)

“My attitude to writing is like when you do wallpapering, you remember where all the little bits are that don’t meet. And then your friends say: ‘It’s terrific!’”
Harrison Birtwistle (1934-)

The first minute of this astonishing recital by two of the most astonishing pianists in the business said it all. Béla Bartók’s 60 seconds of eccentric Bulgarian rhythms and Bulgarian songs. The remainder of the two hours said the rest. Six more of Bartók’s most difficult Mikrokosmos, a cacophony of bells by Ravel. Thirty minutes of colliding machines and 46 minutes of a reverberating Paradise.

And that would be quite enough for any audience.

The duo-recital of Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich was not to be trifled with. No easy-listening Rachmaninoff or Milhaud. Rather, this was a driving, energetic, at times fierce music, and these were the pianists who could handle it.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard is most familiar to New York audiences. Not only as soloist or with the New York Phil and St. Lukes’s orchestra, but working with the International Contemporary Ensemble, he is always welcome. I only heard Ms. Stefanovich once here, again with Mr. Aimard, doing the Bartók Two-piano Concerto, with the Chicago Symphony and again a triumph.

Thus it was no surprise that they took Bartók’s two-piano transcriptions from Mikrokosmos and sent fire through Zankel Hall. After the opening “Bulgarian Rhythm”, they played “Chord and Trill Study”, which is deceptively marked “Moderato”, with far from moderate trills and swirls. The last “Ostinato” was not really an ostinato at all. Bartók called it “oriental”, but its two-and-a-half minutes were literally timeless. And breathless.

And obviously it called for a break! The Aimard-Stefanovich duo left the madness of East Europe for a languorous Spanish “Habanera” and a “Between Bells”, the first of which was later transcribed for Rapsodie espagnole. The “Habanera” was much slower than the orchestral version, the latter could have been used in the composer’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures. Yet just to show that the playing was as pictorial as it was pyrotechnical, the duo made their Steinways sound like a whole series of bells.

These, though, were the appetizers. Two sumptuous all-enveloping monsters of piano music were to come.

The final work had been heard here before. Messiaen’s early seven-movement Visions de l’Amen is not your warm fuzzy religious work. Nor did Messiaen ever hide his fervent religiosity. He was never afraid to let the echoing bells be heard in the “Amen for the Creation”. Amidst the rich ravishing chords, he never feared letting Mr. Aimard drop four or five solo notes as “the drops of blood” from the crucified Jesus.

My own favorite was the “Amen for Desire”. Messiaen did not insert his favorite Liebestod (the ultimate carnal desire), nor have I detected the clue to Manon. But somehow the duo made those heavily disguised chords from Figaro’s aria by Susannah come through. As though Messiaen knew that carnal desire could be as pretty as it could be overpowering.

H. Birtwistle

The most overpowering work of all was Harrison Birtwistle’s Keyboard Engine, Construction for Two Pianos. If Messaien’s Visions had the cosmic silence of a Raphael Jesus ascending, Birtwistle gave us the roaring futurism of a Jean Tinguely machine.

More literally, this Carnegie Hall-commissioned work should have been called an “ongoing construction”. For almost 30 minutes, the two pianists struck forth with a series of dashing, explosive but pinpoint simulations of the most precise machine parts joining in the most unpredictable alignments.

Note, this was no Mosolov Iron Foundry or Antheil Ballet mécanique. Instead, we had two pianos, like Siamese twins totally separate yet dependent on one another. The first measures gave the key. A few doleful measures, then Mr. Aimard exploded with a series of chords, each chord answered with a single plaintive note, just a fraction off rhythm, by Ms. Stefanovich.

As the work went on, the different sections–each separated by a second of silence–became inextricably intertangled with each other. At times jazzy, at times, faux-atonal. Yet somehow, they would manage to loosen these complex cords. Not with a simple cadence, but with a more cryptic ending, like a 21st Century machine so complex we can only see and hear motion, yet which manages to do its job.

After the Messiaen finale, we had no encore. What could they possibly play after two such Gargantuan movements. The last work celebrated the undefinable Cosmos, the penultimate work celebrated the endless pulsations of our earth.

Both, though, celebrated Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich. Theirs was a joy which encompass all the spheres of our lives.

Harry Rolnick



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