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Bach To The Future

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
03/20/2008 -  
J. S. Bach : Contrapunctus I-XI from “The Art of the Fugue”, BWV 1080
Arnold Schoenberg: Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 31 in A flat Major, Opus 110

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano)

If Wednesday evening’s St. Matthew Passion was the Bach of the spirit, last night’s recital by Pierre-Laurent Aimard was the Bach of the mind. Aimard, famed for his rarified programs which dart from the 18th to the 21st centuries, does not play easy music to please his audience. And his program last night of the Opus Ultimum Bach, the almost-final Beethoven, and the first atonal works by Arnold Schoenberg were hardly for the titillation of a Lang Lang audience.

Thus, Carnegie Hall audience was ready for these somewhat foreboding works. Not a cough or sigh or a whisper could be heard, as Aimard held them with rapt attention through his music. He made no compromises, never played to the crowd, and only in the introductions to two encores did this somewhat chilly player became a warm and even humorous human being. Not that the Bach was anything but human. Romantic music historians like Alfred Einstein calls these fugues “a throwback to mystic forms and spaces”. But Bach was doing what he always did: he was producing “an agreeable harmony for the glory of God.”

Bach never heard The Art of the Fugue, except in his mind, and we have no idea what instruments were planned for the work. But obviously, he had no idea of the modern piano. Aimard, striding briskly on stage dressed in black, was hardly intimidated by such questions. He played what is presumably the first 11 variations on the original fugue (nobody is certain of the order yet), with gentle confidence, went into the second variation with a brisker tempo, and proceeded to works which resembled gigues, toccatas and finally great musical masterworks.

The emotion wasn’t in the playing, which was simple, clear, neither academic nor dynamic. It was for us to follow the themes and counter-themes. Usually this was easy. Other times they resembled a child’s puzzle where one had to find the animal (or in this case the fugue) amidst the ever denser underbrush. It was not by any means a transcendental experience, not even a religious one. But Aimard gave a down-to-earth performance of which could have been a frighten experience.

Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces would have been loved (and puzzled over) by Bach himself. Schoenberg always professed to not being a formalist, but these pieces which verge on and once actually embrace the 12-tone scale, are intellectually difficult. Aimard, who is better known for contemporary music, tried to make their transparent. The opening slow work had a Brahmsian intermezzo touch, the second could like a Bach toccata, played with sheer legerdemain. And the final waltz could actually be recognized as a waltz. Not Austrian, not French….but with shadows of rhythms.

The Beethoven was chosen, presumably for its final fugue, but Aimard is not one to ignore the beautiful opening movement, the arpeggios of which he played with a gossamer touch. He relished the change of rhythms in the second movement, and made the introduction to the fugue almost breathtaking. That fugue sounded nothing like Bach: it sounded grand, free, romantic and anything but Baroque. In other words, this was Aimard with a new incarnation, which fit him well.

So yes, here we were with three centuries – and Aimard had another surprise. For his first encore (the second again came from The Art of the Fugue), he played a work from the 21st Century, Elliott Carter’s Caténaires, technically almost impossible. Aimard played it with ease, hands jumping all over the piano yet keeping that moto perpetuo rhythm. How Bach would feel about that is difficult to guess, but we fortunate folk were spellbound and exhausted.

Harry Rolnick



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