Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays Bach, Ligeti and Carter at Tanglewood: thought-provoking, ear-opening

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Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Tuesday, August 10, 8 p.m. Ozawa Hall
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
Members of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe

Pierre-Laurent Aimard and guest soloists from the European Chamber Orchestra performed excerpts from Bach’s Musical Offering, four late chamber works by Elliott Carter, and the Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano — Hommage à Brahms by György Ligeti

Ex. 1. Bach: Theme from The Musical Offering (Thema Regium)

Ex. 2.  Beethoven op 81a, opening:

Ex. 3. Ligeti Trio, opening:

Today many musicians feel it necessary to organize their programs around a theme. Themes can be programmatic (music of spring/summer…, war/peace, food, etc); they can focus on nationality and/or time-period (modern Polish music); a particular characteristic (Maurizio Pollini and the Juilliard Quartet once presented a program of nothing but very short pieces, including Webern’s Bagatelles and Chopin’s Preludes); a survey of a certain repertory (e.g. the complete Bartók string quartets); or actual musical themes (music based on “L’homme armé”). In fact almost anything can be made into a ‘theme.’ When all else fails, you can call a program “Music of Sorrow and Joy” (or “Lament and Celebration”—you get the idea). The theory is that a thematic title gives an audience additional food for thought, and perhaps offers cues of what to listen for; it may create a more active role for the normally passive listeners, or it may simply provide a catchy headline.

It is gratifying when a thoughtful musician digs more deeply into the inner workings of music and comes up with connections that are far from obvious, that involve unusual repertory, that link together works that superficially seem remote from each other, that require an interesting shape and order to events, and that build a cumulative impact such as one normally gets from a single large-scale composition. Last Tuesday at Tanglewood, that musician was the brilliant French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and his theme might be described as “Varieties of Polyphonic Experience.” But that title is much more vague than the very intelligent, pointed, and provocative program choices and order deserve. This was a concert that required work from the audience: being open-minded, listening careful, exercising memory, and actively making comparisons. The juxtaposition of Bach with with the newer ‘old masters’ Elliott Carter and György Ligeti offered suspense and curiosity: just what would hold these composers and these particular works together?

Occurring on the eve of the Festival of Contemporary Music, it might be expected that listeners would take advantage of the event as a kind of “warm-up” for active listening. This seems to have been true for more than half the audience. But the two-thirds full house dwindled to half-full by the end, and there were walk-outs during both halves. Aimard’s assumptions about the adventurous intelligence of his audience may be more easily made for European audiences, or it may be that the artist chose to address himself to listeners who were open and eager to share his own persuasively delivered perceptions and understandings.

Lest it seem that the program was more didactic than artistic, let me confirm that this was a beautiful concert full of varied colors, textures, and emotional experiences, and eventually, high drama. The music was performed with enormous skill combined with modesty bordering on self-effacement. Aimard did a bit more playing than his colleagues in the Carter set, but there was never any sense that he was being showcased. In fact, in the first item, Bach’s Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering, he assumed the humble role of continuo harpsichord player, emerging from the background only when Bach gives the royal theme to the bass-line (see ex. 1). Aimard, for all his brilliance, focuses his passionate commitment on the composers’ musical ideas. In this posture he was well-matched by his colleagues, flutist Clara Andrade de la Calle, violinist Mats Zetterqvist, and horn player Jonathan Williams. Their virtuosity allowed them to manage the great technical demands of the program with grace, giving full attention to clarifying the shapes and processes of the music and giving the dramatic elements, which grew ever stronger as the program progressed, their due.

Each half of the program had its own sub-theme. The first, focussed on texture, led off with the Bach Trio Sonata, each movement presenting a different kind of conversation among the instruments: the first, a thoughtful and poetic dialogue for flute and violin with the bass in a subordinate role; the second, a spirited imitative exchange with only brief motivic contributions from the bass until the ‘thema regium’ asserts itself there, later to be echoed by the upper voices; the third, an affecting duet between upper and lower voices in the then modern style of Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emmanuel; and the finale, a three-voiced fugal gigue on a decorated version of the ‘thema regium,’ with equal participation of all voices.

The subsequent set of four short, late works by Carter extended notions of texture into contemporary tonal languages, but the deceptive spareness of Carter’s unaccompanied violin and flute works also has its roots in the works of Bach.  On the one hand, those instruments’ abilities to engage in internal conversations through the use of contrasting registers, articulations, and sonorities extend practices from Bach’s solo partitas. In the Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi (1984) the violin begins with a flowing, even-paced lyrical melody which is interrupted by abrupt pizzicati and frenetically bowed double-stops, giving an initial impression of a multiple personality going through rapid transitions; as the work unfolds, the traversals from voice to voice take on the quality of a progressively more structured, orderly conversation. As in so much of Carter, the outlines of order gradually emerge from an initial experience of chaos without losing the element of spontaneity. In the miniature piano triptych “Tri-tribute” (2007/8, written for James Levine as an hommage to members of his family), each section displays its own characteristic texture, moving from simpler to more complex. In this sense, the chordal texture of the first, “Sistribute,” (moving from 2-note mid-range sonorities to larger and wider chords) represents very late Carter (written at age 99) writing more simply than ever before. The second, “Fratribute,” returns to the process of the violin piece with short scurrying phrases (one of Carter’s favorite performing directions is “scorrevole”) punctuated by rests and varied contrasts, somewhat in the style of an earlier piano work, “90 +”, while the third, “Matribute,” expands to two layers that begin at opposite ends of the keyboard, only to approach each other and join at the final note, a single isolated middle C. This process of mediation is further demonstrated in the apparently single-voiced “Scrivo in vento” (1991), which achieves moments when the flute transcends its typical one-note-at-a-time character through strategic use of two-note multiphonics (beautifully rendered) that act as cadential markers. The set concluded with “Two Diversions” (1999) for piano which again moved from late-Carter simplicity (a lazy even rhythm and simple note-chord texture) to a typical mid-Carter combination of two contrasting layers of tempo with the pianist’s hands moving at apparently unrelated speeds (actually tightly controlled).  All these works were performed with tonal beauty and an apparent simplicity, drawing us into Carter’s world of conversation and emotional interaction despite the austere atmosphere of some of them. The modesty with which the musicians conducted themselves added another level of intensity to the experience.

The theme of the second half of the program was appropriately more complex: the process of canon. While technical explanations may seem daunting (as they should; good canons are one of the ultimate tests of a composer’s skill and imagination) the experience itself is clear enough: one is hearing a number of voices that seem to be saying the same thing at different times, creating an active multi-dimensional Gestalt full of character. The element of surprise or drama in a canon comes from the way the details of the theme transform into a larger harmonic and rhythmic experience, much as the way a painting can spring to life when we “read” on its two-dimensional surface its three-dimensional implications.

The Musical Offering is the ultimate exercise in canonic possibilities by music’s greatest master of the art, as demonstrated in the examples performed. And while Ligeti’s Trio (1982) has strong ties to Beethoven and Brahms, its presence as the climactic work of this program demonstrated its strong affiliation with Bach through its crucial and fantastically imaginative reconstitution of the canon as a constructive and expressive technique, and through its mastery at combining disparate voices into a cohesive texture. But first, those other connections.

The full title of the work includes the phrase Hommage à Brahms referring to that composer’s Trio for the same instruments (op. 40 in E-flat major), a previously unprecedented combination. This served as model also in its focus on the “natural horn” technique in which the role of the valves is downplayed (in Brahms’ case, non-existent when played on the old-style horn for which the work was intended) and the embouchure technique of playing on overtones is extended to include harmonics considered “out of tune” in our modern scale.1 It is the combination of three instruments which are in many ways incompatible that offered a tempting challenge to both composers, and the works are worthy companions, each in four movements and about the same length.

The Beethoven connection to Ligeti actually runs through Brahms, who was very fond of the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 26 known as “Les Adieux” or, in German, “Lebewohl” (i.e., “farewell”). The sonata begins with a descending statement of a motive known as “horn fifths” albeit played on the piano and underpinned with a bass-note that renders the tone melancholy; Beethoven included the word “Le-be-wohl” as a motto in his score (see ex. 2).  This motive became an emblem of sad departures for many romantic composers, and was a favorite of Brahms’, appearing in a number of works including the his trio.  Ligeti’s work begins in a quiet, “listening” mood; as shown in ex. 3, Ligeti takes this motto as his point of departure, giving a slightly skewed version of it to the violin in double-stops (not the horn!), and it is then extended through a “developing variation” process while the horn plays a meandering and apparently unrelated line (not unlike the opening of Carter’s violin piece; the horn floats in its own rhythmic space like one hand of Carter’s “Matribute”). Eventually the violin motive generates a canonic response in the high register of the piano—the call of farewell is echoed back with increasing fervor. In fact, the notion of echo is a pivotal image for this movement. As part of the increasingly animated conversation, the horn starts to shoot off occasional spurts of overtones which are extended into the violin. These find responses and extensions in both of the other instruments and a climax arrives before the opening quiet “listening” attitude reestablishes itself.

In contrast, the second movement pulsates with rhythmic energy. Ligeti (as quoted by Robert Kirzinger in his helpful program notes) described this as a “polymetric dance inspired by the various folk musics of non-existing peoples.” From the stage, Aimard described it as a “bossa nova.” Like a number of Ligeti piano works it uses a rapid, non-symmetrical meter (3 + 3 + 2) which can be traced back to Bartók’s “Six Pieces on Bulgarian Dance Rhythms” from Mikrokosmos Book VI (1936), from which we might infer that the “non-existing peoples” are Eastern Europeans. There is also a jazz element: in the climactic passage, Ligeti asks for accents in the piano part to be played “strongly accented, ecstatically, like in jazz.” [sic] For any audience members who were still struggling with the unfamiliar or esoteric material of the first movement, this “Vivacissimo molto ritmico” must have hooked them in. It makes great use of the “off-key” notes in the horn. Melodic phrases are marked with a single valve position, from which all the notes are played as overtones, placing great emphasis on the non-tempered pitches, which call out (like blue notes) from within the dancing textures of violin and piano.

Canon of an unusual kind reappears in the third movement, an emphatic march of dissonant harmonies in which violin and piano begin in rhythmic unison only to have the violin start to fall gradually more and more behind the piano. (This is a modern take on the idea of rhythmic canon, whose antecedantsantecedents go back to the 15th century; but the effect here is contemporary and comical rather than antique and cosmic.) The horn appears only in the middle section, actually the “trio” of a scherzo form, which presents a stark contrast, with all instruments playing smooth even phrases “without accents, very evenly and fluidly.” This section is pseudo-canonic in that the instruments sound like they are playing the same material but actually are not.

The trio ends with an adagio, “Lamento,” formally reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. It is characterized by immensely long notes on the horn in its extreme registers. The horn player must grab breaths as inconspicuously as possible as needed. The violin returns to Beethoven’s “farewell” motive, drawn out in an atmosphere of timelessness like the “Louange” movements of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Violin and piano become increasingly animated, eventually drawing in the horn as well. The upward spurts of the first movement are inverted here descending from the high registers of violin and piano and the horn’s natural harmonics cry out: this is a lament without inhibitions. The piano grows thicker and lower; it eventually climaxes by pounding thick clusters on its the lowest notes, drowning all else in a barbaric noise. When it ceases, our ears discover that violin and horn are playing ‘endless’ notes very quietly at their registral extremes (high and low, respectively), an experience reminiscent of the orchestral music of Ives. Ligeti has always been interested in exploring the musical potential of extremes; here is one of the most dramatic of such moments. The rest of the movement is a long slow playing out of the wisps of sound that remain, including the return of the “farewell” motive in the piano’s highest register.

Ligeti’s Trio is one of the masterpieces of the late twentieth century. It was pivotal for Ligeti in his turn to more dramatic, accessible styles and to large-scale forms for his later music. It also has become as close to standard repertory as any other recent work. Much of its power stems from explorations of texture and counterpoint that were highlighted by the themes of this program. The interactions between perceptible strict processes and disruptions of those processes were dramatically evident. They were projected with both clarity and passion by these extraordinarily dedicated musicians who know the music inside-out and can feel it in their bones. With such commitment from the players, there can be no question of an audience remaining indifferent. For those who were open to it, this program paid off in electrifying dividends.

1 The most out-of-tune natural harmonics are the seventh and eleventh, which clearly do not match the equivalent notes on an equal-tempered keyboard, or any tuning system in use in Western music for the past thousand years.  The seventh harmonic of a C, for example, would be a note about 1/6 tone lower than B-flat; the eleventh would be just about half-way between F and F-sharp.  Another composer who uses these ‘natural’ tones on the horn is Benjamin Britten, whose Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings begins with a horn solo that uses no valves, an effect which establishes a “magic” atmosphere for the nocturnal songs to follow.

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