Double Boulez

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photo: Marco Borggreve/ Deutsche Grammophon.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photo: Marco Borggreve/ Deutsche Grammophon.

It’s tempting to just say, go here, and read Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times review of the program played in New York on the 16th by pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich –the program they repeated in Carolina’s Memorial Hall March 18. Tommasini gives an excellent overview of the all-Boulez concert; however he says nothing about one of its most intriguing aspects.

The French pianist Aimard played at Carolina Performing Arts in November, 2012, giving an unforgettable concert featuring work by Claude Debussy. Afterwards, he mentioned to CPA director Emil Kang that he–with his former student Tamara Stefanovich–was working on a program that would include all of the piano music written by French modernist composer Pierre Boulez, with whom Aimard has long been close. Aimard was hoping to tour this somewhat daunting program in honor of Boulez’ forthcoming 90th birthday. Kang took up the challenge, making CPA the last of four stops on the US tour (Berkeley, Chicago, New York…Chapel Hill). Pierre Boulez will turn 90 next week.

One of the things that made this concert special was that the performers spoke (but not too much) about the works, giving them some context in musical history. The evening opened with Aimard playing Notations I-XII for piano, written by the 20-year-old Boulez at the end of WWII. They splinter and froth with complex emotions, a dozen new beginnings in 12-tone style from the wreckage of Europe. Aimard went on to play Boulez’ Sonata for Piano No. 1, from 1946, speaking beforehand of its “burning and icy sounds; its wild gestures, and the space floating or collapsing.” This, he said was “the music of a very young man who wants to make another French Revolution.” Certainly its spatial qualities are amazing, but more piercing are the extreme contrasts, which Aimard loads with color, from the bituminous tones of the lowest registers, to the nacreous pink high notes. Storming violet clouds shading toward bruised plum were pierced with fans of harsh viridian in the middle, the colors weaving together as the hands crisscrossed on the keyboard.

But then came the most illuminating aspect of the evening. One knows that each performer gives something different to the music, but here was a demonstration that would be hard to beat. Tamara Stefanovich took the stage to perform the Boulez Sonata for Piano No. 2, from 1948. It’s a much more advanced, complex work than the first sonata–she called it “monumental,” and “an acoustical tapestry that detonates in the finale”–but the extreme difference in coloration came from the performer. Stefanovich studied with Aimard; she played the same Steinway D–yet her palette was very different from Aimard’s. She’s very powerful, especially with her left hand, and stabbingly precise, though perhaps not as nuanced as Aimard, and much cooler. The undertones of her thundering low-register blacks, for instance, are blue and green, rather than golden.

One’s mind continued to explore this mystery of interpretation as the performers alternated again through the Cageian Sonata No. 3 (I thought I glimpsed the dancing ghost of Merce Cunningham), Incises, and Une page d’éphéméride. This last harks back to simplicity of the Notations, and the composer’s obvious delight in speed and risk seems more playful than destructive as it had in the Sonata No. 3.

Then, another Steinway was wheeled onstage, and the evening closed with Structures, deuxième livre, for two pianos, which allows the performers a measure of improvisatory freedom within the written score. They may take sections in different orders to make combinations that feel right at the moment. One plays, then signals to the other to respond–a musical poetry slam. You would have missed the fun of watching the challenging game, but if you’d closed your eyes, you would have been in no doubt of who was playing at any moment. Altogether, this was a most refreshing concert.

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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