Musikfest 2: Pedal Power
Over the past several years, Pierre-Laurent Aimard has been responsible for some of the most ambitious, and most rewarding recital programmes at Musikfest, the most recent of which was a complete performance of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux. The programme for his second appearance at this year’s Musikfest may have seemed somewhat more conventional on paper, pairing Beethoven’s universally admired Hammerklavier sonata with Helmut Lachenmann’s less well-known but equally fascinating Serynade. If the two pieces had little in the way of superficial similarities, they were united by a shared desire on the part of their respective composers to explore the sonic potential of the keyboard instrument.
A cursory glance at Mr Aimard’s recent performances and best-known recordings offers a fairly clear idea of his musical preoccupations: in additions to Messiaen’s Catalogue (and still one of the most riveting recordings of Vingt regards), he has tackled Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke, and Ligeti’s Études, as well as Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier and Art of Fugue, all encyclopaedic works exploring simple musical ideas from numerous angles. One does not, however, find much engagement with the romantic canon, and one suspects that even the most grandly scaled works of the nineteenth century – Liszt’s Années de Pélerinage or Chopin’s Nocturnes, for instance – would not necessarily be aligned to Mr Aimard’s strengths or interests.
Even the appearance of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata was somewhat surprising. It may contain one of the most dazzling fugues ever written for a piano, but to get there one must first traverse the third movement, one of the defining statements of the nascent romantic era. From the outset, however, it was apparent that Mr Aimard had little interest in the sonata’s capacity for emotion. After a forceful opening statement, he stepped quickly back to a position of intellectual observation and the remainder of the movement, although never lacking in energy, seemed governed by a sense of rigorous control. Mr Aimard used his great clarity and precision to highlight the character of the individual sections, but his tendency to overstate the contrasts prevented those sections from flowing naturally into one another. For all the fire in Mr Aimard’s playing, the movement was never really allowed to get cooking.
The second movement, propelled by an animated pace and coloured by elegant bass swells, sounded more idiomatic, but the third was less convincing. While Mr Aimard did not deny us the fundamental beauty of the movement, he seemed determined to illustrate the ease with which Beethoven’s great lament could be broken into disconnected fragments. Every time it seemed to be gaining some momentum, a sudden chord or moment of emphatic articulation would shake us out of the reverie. If these interjections and interruptions served to highlight the structure, one sometimes longed for a greater sense of the connecting thread that can give the different episodes their cumulative power.
Then the fugue began, and the entire performance shifted suddenly into a higher gear. The vaguely studied air that had surrounded the third movement lifted to reveal an unconcealed joy in the trills and rapid downward figures of the theme, and an exuberant enthusiasm for Beethoven’s dazzling counterpoint. More than any of the previous movements, the fugue flowed effortlessly, with Mr Aimard’s staggering technique governed, but never overshadowed by his commanding intelligence. One could hear the cool rigour of his Bach performances and the pianistic daring of his Ligeti coming together in the service of a masterpiece; but when it was over, one was left only with the sense of Beethoven at his most triumphant.
In the third movement of the Hammerklavier sonata one finds explicit instructions for how one should employ the una corda and sustain pedals, suggesting that the nature of sound was essential to Beethoven’s conception of the sonata. The fortepianos of Beethoven’s day have since been replaced by the modern concert instrument, but the desire to exploit the sonic possibilities of the piano have continued to be a guiding principle in the works of twentieth-century composers such as Cage, Stockhausen and, more recently, Helmut Lachenmann, whose Serynade formed the second half of the evening’s programme. If Beethoven’s sonata opened the door for expressive pedalling, Lachenmann’s piece was closer to a thesis on the current state of the art, testing the pedals of the concert grand to their very limit.
While Lachenmann left ample spaces between the notes and chords of the opening section, there were few moments of actual silence. It was, indeed, in those moments where sound was left hanging in the air that the argument of the piece seemed to lie: the long gaps between keyboard events forced the audience to consider more closely the way in which sound decays over time. Of course pieces that explore the fundamental properties of sustain and decay are nothing new, but Lachenmann was rarely content to let his overtones die naturally. Instead he used the dampers of the piano to sculpt the reverberations into an entirely different sonic landscape.
Lachenmann employed a vast range of pedal technique, from carefully notated depressions of the sustain pedal, to passages in which full-arm clusters were followed immediately by the silent depression of keys and lowering of the dampers, allowing us to hear only the ghost of a particular chord, a complete inversion of the way in which a piano normally produces sound. In one extraordinary passage, the pedals alone were used to create a kind of residual sound. Although there were a few instances when Mr Aimard was called upon to reach into the instrument to play harmonics on the bass strings, much of the drama of the piece came from the simple dialogue of keyboard and pedals.
It is to the credit of both composer and performer that nothing about the piece came across as contrived. For all its sonic explorations and difficult performance directions – executed with apparent ease by Mr Aimard – the piece was, in its own way, as compelling as the Beethoven sonata, if occasionally more confrontational. During the unnervingly intense middle section, in which a repeated chord was overwhelmed gradually by elbowed bass clusters, about a dozen people walked out. One hopes that Mr Lachenmann, who was seated near the back of Block A, was secretly pleased by this minor exodus; after all, if music no longer has the power to challenge and unsettle, what is the point of writing it. For the remainder of the audience, however, Mr Aimard’s performance of Serynade provided a captivating, endlessly fascinating inquiry into the nature of the modern piano and an oddly fitting companion to Beethoven’s most ambitious and exploratory sonata.