and Good For You
Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 17
Talent is talent and transcends nationalism, so Pierre-Laurent
Aimard’s Troy Music Hall recital last week ranged effectively
through the music of five composers born in five different
countries, each interpretation as compelling as the one before.
But the sequence of works proceeded so shrewdly that when
this French-born pianist reached the final work, Book One
of Debussy’s Préludes, it was as triumphant as it was
inevitable. In other words, it wasn’t just some kind of Gallic-centric
phenomenon here; it was, as the French probably wouldn’t put
it, the whole shebang.
Debussy couldn’t have painted the tone pictures he came up
with without the music of Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin
in his ear; Elliott Carter may deny it, but he clearly paid
attention to the music of Debussy.
I’d like to think that the more hip parts of this country
don’t need their advance publicity to apologize for presenting
music by Carter, a still-living contemporary of Aaron Copland
(who was slightly older) and Leonard Bernstein (ten years
younger). But this is the fusty Capital Region, where we quail
at the possibility of dissonance. Based on the intermission
murmurs of the small, grey crowd that attended this concert,
the upcoming Two Diversions by Carter was anticipated
as the musical equivalent of cod liver oil—it might prove
to be good for you in some mysterious way, but at least it
would be survivable.
The nervous nellies squinched their faces and swallowed what
turned out to be a fascinating, persuasive seven-minute work
built on classical forms and building to an exciting finish.
It opens with a slow ground over which we tour a melodic sequence
based on intervals of seconds and thirds; the rhythm develops,
sometimes adding a backbeat, sometimes seeming to vanish briefly.
For a while, the ground even traded places with the melodic
figures. A tonal center grows as the first Diversion finishes;
the second seizes that center as part of a hyperkinetic re-realization
of the ground and intervals that came before.
It set the stage nicely for the Debussy Préludes, but,
just as Aimard saved that for last, so shall I. You could
call the first half of the program (Mozart-Beethoven-Chopin)
the crowd-pleaser, but Mozart’s sonatas often offer more challenges
than the casual listener is prepared to meet.
Certainly his Sonata No. 16, a late-in-(abbreviated)-life
work, finds his lines leaner and ideas more rarefied than
what came before. Aimard made a short sonata shorter by dropping
the exposition repeat, but I’ll heretically confess that I
didn’t miss it. I was fascinated by the pianist’s ability
to use pauses as dynamic devices, further enhancing a work
that never seeks to overwhelm you with sound.
Even his choice of a Beethoven sonata was offbeat. Like Bill
Evans, Beethoven enjoyed writing pieces for the women in his
life, and the Sonata No. 24 is subtitled “For Thérèse”
in order to suck up to a dame. It’s a brief work densely packed
with fresh ideas, and Aimard brought to it an Alfred Brendel-like
sense of urgency that nevertheless seemed unhurried. Even
his dash for the finish in the quick second (and last) movement
That sense of urgency also informed the Barcarolle
by Chopin, one of my favorite works by that composer. The
beautiful cascade of trills that brings the whole thing together
at the end sounded like Aimard had four hands going.
Want a triumphant finish for the first half? Don’t play Chopin’s
Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61. But if you’re heading for
Carter-land, it’s a perfect prelude, thoughtfully constructed
and very melodic without getting too show-offish. And it was
fascinating to hear how much this work prefigured Debussy’s.
Debussy’s Préludes advanced the concept of programmatic
miniatures into realms of sound poetry where the piano had
never before ventured, if I may wax hyperbolic. These whimsically
titled pieces have such transparency about them that you’ll
forget you’re listening to music as they draw you in, whether
it be the blurred majesty of the “Sunken Cathedral” or the
“Sounds and Scents of the Evening Air”—the latter demonstrating
Aimard’s ability to use a pause as a dramatic device.
He paused and pedaled and trilled and otherwise caressed sounds
out of that piano that seemed to originate elsewhere, so transcendent
did he make this music. From the simple beauty of “The Girl
with the Flaxen Hair” to the syncopated dance of “Minstrels,”
there’s a wide range of sound and emotion available in this
set. In “What the West Wind Saw,” the pianist was suitably
animated, fueled by the feisty chromaticism, while he gave
“The Interrupted Serenade” a snappy, Albeniz-like sound.
Despite repeated calls and an enthusiasm that caused the audience
to lumber to its feet, Aimard gave no encore, which was a
good choice: it was a pleasure to leave the hall with the
Debussy still ringing in my ears.