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Messiaen-ic Revelations

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/08/2010 -  
Olivier Messiaen: Huit Préludes
Frédéric Chopin: Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Opus 60 – Scherzo No. 2, Opus 31
Maurice Ravel: Miroirs

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Piano)

P.-L. Aimard (©(Mitch Jenkins)

New York should remember 2010 as The Year of Aimard. As Artist-in-Residence for the Mostly Mozart Festival, he produced, directed, performed and broadened out the repertory into four centuries of new and wondrous music. Last night, as the Year of Aimard comes to a close, he again not only performed familiar works with luminously, but he introduced pieces rarely heard in New York.

In fact, a few bird-fanciers in the audience probably came to hear the earliest avian works by Messiaen, eight Préludes written when he was barely 20 years old. Had they been introduced as “newly discovered pieces by Debussy”, few would have been astonished. As accomplished as they are, the preludes have titles and notes that could have come from the Claude-Achille himself.

“The Impalpable Sounds of the Dream” or “Reflection in the Wind” or “Bells of Anguish, And Tears of Farewell” could be Debussy homages or, perhaps, genetically Gallic titles. But the music too easily reflected Debussy, albeit with a few hints of the Messiaen to come.
Yes, we had one bird, the dove. No dove sound, as he would have produced later, but some chromatic scales branching out to floating chords. (Messiaen later called the right hand “violet”, the left hand “orange.”)
The other preludes mainly had that same ethereal floating Debussyan quality, with a few pictures in between. The “Bells of Anguish” were not very agonizing. But Messiaen produced a piano version of scientific resonance. We heard one note strike a short bell sound, which, amidst the blurry chords, was repeated several times, one sound longer than the other until the end. Pythagoras would have understood the scientific basis of the resonance, but Messiaen gave it a hazier Impressionist light.
Amidst this octet of four-minute works, which took the first half of the program, one spotted a few Messiaen trademarks. The repetition of phrases (an anticipation of birdsongs?), the exotic color of themes played or three octaves apart. But most of all, the confidence of a composer whose true mystical voice was yet to come, yet whose early music still floated in its own aura.

The more familiar second half displayed M. Aimard’s unique programing, where similarities and oppositions appeared in most unlikely places. We had Chopin’s nautical Barcarolle contrasted with Ravel’s “Boat on the Ocean”. Ravel’s “Sad Birds” contrasted with Messiaen’s “The Dove”. Again, Ravel’s tolling bells and Messiaen’s tolling bells.
With another pianist, these might be coincidences. With M. Aimard, you know that his precision extends not only to the notes but to their order of the works.

Now, though, one must write about M. Aimard’s performance of Miroirs. And now words fail completely. To simply say that he is the world’s finest interpreter of French music does no justice to the experience of hearing him. He had performed the Chopin Second Scherzo with great clarity, and the rubato pauses which made it seem like a dramatic story. The Barcarolle was a Venetian dream, with singing tones, with lulling rhythms.

I am noticeably procrastinating words about M. Aimard’s Miroirs. It was the complete set, rarely played. For any pianist it is too exhausting, the multihued colors too radiant, too many revelations offered. Like good caviar, one serving does the trick.
M. Aimard tackled the set, and my own senses were flooded with far too much. This was no fairy-dust gossamer Impressionist Ravel. Instead, it was a muscular Ravel, each section pouring out an endless pattern of notes, almost aggressively ready to challenge any listener to take it all in.
(In fact, a few listeners left during the playing. Perhaps they were expecting Donny and Marie?.)
Noctuelles brought forth infinite three-dimensional geometric patterns. After that, we had our wavering birds fluttering helplessly in a sweltering forest. The Spanish work was sharp, pungent, the heroism with a literally Quixotic pathos.
As for “Une barque sur l’océan”, memories of Chopin’s Barcarolle were drowned in this massive sweeping and literally overwhelming playing.
I cannot justify any further words. M. Aimard’s Ravel was less a performance than a revelation.

The evening was one of surprises, and M. Aimard didn’t surrender his efforts for the encores. First was György Kurtág’s Hommage à Berényi Ferenc 70, an angular shadowy work based on a single right-hand solo melody. The second I believe was by Ligeti. It had the crashing sounds, a funny single note played at unlikely times, and a real humor.
If I am wrong, I hope to be corrected. Frankly, though, after M. Aimard’s Miroirs, anything else, even from the pianist’s limitless repertory, evaporated in a series of halcyon happinesses.

CODA: In the last paragraph, I had guessed that Mr. Aimard’s second encore was by Ligeti. Steve Smith of the New York Times informs us that I was in error. The work was the fourth of Harrison Birtwistle’s Harrison’s Clocks

Harry Rolnick



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