Debussy in full color: Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s poetic piano at CPA

Sonia Delaunay. Simultaneous Contrasts, 1912.

La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, written by Blaise Cendrars and painted by Sonia Delaunay, 1913.

The first time I can remember experiencing synesthesia was the first time I listened to a recording of the Debussy Preludes, Book II (1913). The music jumped out at me in colored shapes and lines. I couldn’t get over it. I wore that record out. Years later, I saw artwork that sounded just like the Preludes–the simultaneous color paintings of Sonia Delaunay, contemporaneous with Book II. I saw those shifting, overlapping colors in my ears, clearer than ever before, during the wonderful piano recital by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, presented on November 11 by Carolina Performing Arts.

CPA included this recital in its series on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring because of the connection between the two composers. Just imagine: Stravinsky (1882-1971) writes the four-hand piano version of The Rite and takes it to his older pal Claude Debussy (1862-1918), who has been much enamored of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. They sight-read the score together at the first performance. It boggles the mind. As Aimard said in his fascinating post-concert talk, there is quite a contrast between Debussy’s “intimate world and the ernormous, violent world of The Rite of Spring.”

But back to the Preludes. There are a dozen in Book II, and hearing Aimard speak about them was almost as good as hearing him play them. “Debussy loved day-to-day pleasures in life,” he said. “In each of the preludes, there is a different world of color–and a shimmering between two color or harmonic worlds.”  The way Aimard described these harmonies and colors, he could have been talking about Delaunay’s (and other Orphists and simultaneous color painters) techniques.

Sonia Delaunay, Simultaneous Colors, n.d., c. 1912.

“Harmony has not the function of a step, of going somewhere,” he said. “It stays, its own color.” But Debussy “surrounds one note with changing harmonies,” and that is very like Delaunay. Or, he makes two notes move against three, to make an undulating travel inside the harmony. In a trill, the light changes. And then there is the manipulation of space. Aimard explained how Debussy used scales at different speeds to give us the sense of changing distance in space from the sounds/colors of the final Book II prelude, Feux d’artifice (Fireworks). Something very similar goes on in Delaunay’s work from this period. Debussy also like games, tucking bits of other music into his compositions, like figures hidden in plain sight in a landscape. Quotes from Petrushka are scattered throughout the Preludes, and a snippet from The Rite is hidden in number 11, hidden by making the notes piu pianissimo rather than sung out by four blazing trumpets. Here’s Delaunay sneaking some figures into her abstraction.

Sonia Delaunay – Le Bal Bullier 1913 (detail).

Aimard also played the very short Three Night Pieces for Piano by Heinz Holliger (b. 1939) that were just about the saddest music I’ve ever heard. I don’t think I could have borne for them to go on. But they were like a bitter drink before a rich dinner: after them came the whole set of Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. I had never been able to get worked up about Schumann, but I suppose that’s because I had never heard him played with such rich feeling.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photo: Marco Borggreve/DG.

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Joy, only briefly interrupted: CPA brings the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique for Beethoven’s 9th

Sir John Eliot Gardiner leading the ORR. Photo courtesy of Opus 3 Artists.

“I should like to go,” she said. “I have never heard a symphony, not with an orchestra. I have read about the Ninth. They say it is divine.”

So says the character Emily Bronte, in Denise Giardina’s wonderful novel of the Bronte sisters, Emily’s Ghost. It is the opening move in her losing struggle to get permission to walk 12 West Yorkshire miles there and back to hear the music, to be performed by a touring orchestra with a local chorale. She has taught herself to play the piano transcription of the 5th Symphony (much like she learned German from a book, without ever having heard it spoken); she longs for this music with all her passionate soul. She’s ready to take in mending to pay for a ticket. The problem is, she’s an unmarried female in the 1840s, with no money for carriage, chaperone or suitable accommodation.

“But I desire nothing in the world so much. Oh, Papa! Only to hear Beethoven’s symphony, the greatest, everyone says–“

Last night, without any kind of struggle, I drove the easy 12 miles and back to hear the Carolina Performing Arts presentation of that glorious, familiar, music, and thought again and again of that passage. The marvel of recorded and broadcast sound has given us so much music that we tend to be blasé about the miracle of it. And although it is much easier for anyone to hear a live performance of Beethoven’s 9th than it was for a poor rector’s daughter in the West Riding 170 years ago, it is still costly, a very special thing, truly available only to a small elite group with a certain kind of erudition, and a fistful of spare cash, or in this case, a student ID. That this music is aesthetically accessible (pardon the dreadful word) to anyone, anytime, anywhere, only makes that sadder. The Beethoven 9th does not require that you know anything; it does not require you to struggle with opacities and ambiguities, structural oddities or ugly sounds. All that it requires (not such a small thing) is for you to open to it, to flow with it and to feel what you feel. The warm full sound of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR), with its period instruments, along with the astonishing Monteverdi Choir, conducted by the passionate and athletic Sir John Eliot Gardiner (in black velvet Mandarin jacket, the cuffs turned back to chartreuse silk), made it very easy to turn off the mind and feel the joy.

Mostly live performances go off without any untoward incidents, but you never know–that’s part of why they are so exciting. This one had a little surprise. It came near the end of the second movement, with the musicians and conductor completely engrossed in making their vivid magic, and the audience like one big ear. A terrible noise buzzed from the speakers (not in use for the concert). Some hapless sound tech must have flipped a wrong switch. Gardiner’s both feet came off the floor. His head whipped around; the baton faltered for an instant. His glare landed on the first violin, who shrugged. Turning back to the ensemble, he visibly controlled himself and they brought the movement to a creditable close before he threw down the baton and stomped off the stage. He was gone for a long time, presumably skinning the malefactor. Returning to the podium and recovering the baton, the conductor crouched like a pole vaulter, and catapulted back into Beethoven.

Memorial Hall was packed to the top row for the concert. The audience was not entirely white, but its greater diversity was in age. Behind me were two young girls in velvet dresses, with their parents. Across the aisle, sat another family of several children, the youngest of whom could not have been more than six. There were more than a few nonagenarians, and every age between. Most of these people would have heard the 9th via recording, and many would have been to a live performance or five, but I’m willing to bet that up in the nosebleed seats, there was at least one person on a $10 student ticket, maybe a preacher’s kid from some rural crossroads, who experienced this divinity for the very first time last night. When the music ended, the entire crowd surged upward with a prolonged joyous roar nearly as loud as the combined 64 instruments and 39 voices of the orchestra and choir. Turning to look back and upwards, I saw every face transformed. A little speaker buzz had only served to limn the edge of ineffable beauty.

Belcea Quartet Plays Late Beethoven at Duke

After the exciting, edge-blurring jazzgrass music of the Bela Fleck/Marcus Roberts Trio quartet, heard earlier in the week, the strictly classical Belcea Quartet initially seemed…a little staid. Fresh from Carnegie Hall, the Belcea played an all-Beethoven program of late works, as the quartet comes to the end of a long cycle of study and performance of Beethoven’s entire quartet oeuvre. The Chamber Arts Society/Duke Performances presentation in Reynolds Theater was well attended, but not by adventurous youth. Perhaps that accounted for the notable lack of buzzy anticipation.

Belcea Quartet, photo Duke Performances.

Led by the redoubtable Romanian-born Corina Belcea (b. 1975; she founded the quartet while still a student at London’s Royal College of Music, and is its only remaining original member), the program began with String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, op. 130. This is the piece that originally ended with what quickly became known as the Grosse Fugue (op. 133)–and that is how the Belcea rendered it. Beethoven’s friends told him at the time, the Grosse Fugue overwhelms the first five movements, and should be replaced with something more suitable. He did that, but we were privileged to hear for ourselves why it was a good idea. The Grosse Fugue is so magnificent and complex, it is much better off alone.

The playing initially seemed arid as No. 13 unfolded. The sound was very clear, but dry somehow, and with an uncomfortable edge. In his review of the first of the two Carnegie Hall concerts, which included op. 130, James Oestreich described Belcea’s violin as having an “astringent edge,” which seems accurate–clean, but with a puckering, drawing quality, rather than an enveloping warmth. Yet when the Grosse Fugue began, that very slight tightness gave way to great flexibility as the strings wound along the fantastic routes of the motifs as they lead and follow, reverse and cross each other throughout their transformations. While the mind deploys itself among the patterns, the heart goes straight to the mysteriously emotional quality of the music. Where the playing of op. 130 felt held back, over-ordered, that of the Grosse Fugue expressed within the music’s intricate structure all the freedom of intense familiarity.

As grand as the Grosse Fugue is, it is a puny thing next to the enormous String Quartet no. 14 in C-sharp Minor, op. 131, which the Belcea gave all the passion reserved from No. 13. There’s no neat classicism here, with four or five easily definable movements. No. 14 has seven parts, but they’re not separable. Beethoven was totally deaf when he wrote this–yet he put in so much sound that it is hard to believe that a mere four stringed instruments make it all. He completed it in 1826, a year before his death–but it sounds almost modern (pre-minimalism modern), as well as tortured, transcendent and capital R Romantic. It takes up your soul, bellowing and grappling, and wraps it like Ulysses wrapped the bag of winds. Then, with a few swift final chords, the cords are slashed and the spirit rises roaring.

No encore is possible after this, or even desirable. The musicians could barely stand to bow, and after the third curtain call, we all staggered out, replete with music.

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