By John von Rhein
Normally when a pianist tackles Beethoven’s mighty “Hammerklavier” sonata, you expect that musical colossus to be the toughest piece on the program.
Not when that pianist happens to be Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
The masterly French musician divided his recital Tuesday night at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center between Beethoven’s Opus 106 and a selection of piano pieces by the great Hungarian modernist Gyorgy Ligeti that pose formidable technical and intellectual demands of their own.
It was in every respect a triumphant conclusion to this season’s University of Chicago Presents Ligeti series, a series built around the participation of Aimard, who was Ligeti’s preferred interpreter of his keyboard works.
In a lecture-discussion the previous day, the pianist spoke of Ligeti’s enormous debt to Beethoven, particularly with regard to rhythm and its structural use. His compelling performances Tuesday pointed up further correspondences between musical revolutionaries separated by more than a century.
In the gnarly fugue that concludes Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata” (1969), for example, you could hear the influence of the powerful three-voice fugue that concludes the “Hammerklavier.” Fiercely original in his own way, each composer so completely reinvented existing forms that those forms would never be the same again.
Aimard originally planned to devote the entire first half of his program to selected Ligeti etudes, an extraordinary collection of pieces that are the crowning achievement of his career. At the last minute, however, Aimard cut back the number of etudes and prefaced them with “Musica Ricercata,” an early work from the years when Ligeti remained under the influence of Bartok and Stravinsky.
This ingenious, 11-part study in accumulating pitches (the first section is built on only two tones) was a test of concentrated energy Aimard threw himself into with acute focus of mind and muscle. Here, and in the etudes, his playing carried enormous panache, filled with the insights of an artist who enjoyed a long and close association with the composer.
Each of the five etudes he performed redefines the genre in novel, sometimes wild, always absorbing ways.
He brought out the dynamic shadings of No. 12 (“Entrelacs”) and enfolding rhythmic contours of No. 2 (“Open strings”), just as the Bartokian dance rhythms of other pieces benefited from his hard, chiseled sonority and from the control and evenness of his fingerwork. Music that hovers between elegance and raw ferocity summoned the same qualities from Aimard.
Rather like the Ligeti etudes, Beethoven’s towering Sonata No. 29 in B flat is music about music. One can understand so brainy a virtuoso being attracted to this epic landscape, which falls into a category once described by another great Beethovenian, Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel, as music greater than it can be played.
Once thought unplayable, this longest of “the 32” puts everything in a pianist’s arsenal on the line. Indeed, the sheer physical effort needed to make the music speak is virtually built into the score. None but the greatest artists may apply, and Aimard is among the greats of his generation.
If his probing interpretation betrayed some wrong or dropped notes along the way, who cared? No pianist outside the clinical perfection of the recording studio manages to navigate Beethoven’s murderously difficult thickets of notes impeccably. What Aimard delivered was deeply satisfying, a “Hammerklavier” those lucky enough to hear it will long remember.
Much the same rhythmic drive and volatility he underscored in Ligeti he also brought to Beethoven. At Aimard’s resolute tempo, the opening allegro carried an elemental energy that swept all before it. The brusque humor of his scherzo set off the sustained eloquence of his adagio. In lesser hands, this slow movement can feel endless; Aimard’s firm grip on the music’s developmental logic made it feel not a note too long.
He plunged fearlessly into the gnarled contrapuntal textures of the fugal finale and, not surprisingly, emerged unscathed. Amazing what 10 powerful fingers connected to a brilliant interpretive mind can achieve in this almost superhuman music.
Smiling through what must have been exhaustion as he took his bows, Aimard declined to play any encores, nor were any expected. How does one follow something so tremendous as this “Hammerklavier”?