Saturday, January 29, 2011

French Pianists, Berg's Sonata Op. 1, Liszt's B-minor Sonata

Spivey Hall welcomes the illustrious French pianist PIERRE-LAURENT AIMARD in May for his Atlanta debut. His program includes two ground-breaking sonatas:  a Second Viennese School masterwork by Alban Berg, his early Sonata, Op. 1; and a towering monument of musical Romanticism, the Piano Sonata in B minor by visionary virtuoso Franz Liszt.

A few days ago, I noticed an article in The New York Times about another celebrated French pianist already known to Spivey Hall audiences, Helene Grimaud. I first met Helene when she was a teenager, making her Georgia debut with the Atlanta Symphony (during the 1990/91 season, I believe), and I was artistic administrator there.  I later heard her perform the Brahms D-minor Piano Concerto with Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra, and last spent time with Helene perhaps seven or eight years ago, over dinner with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen following a Hollywood Bowl performance of (if memory serves) Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4.  In each instance, she played wonderfully, with tremendous strength, purpose, and musical insight.

I was not aware of the serious health problems that in the past few years gave her an enforced sabbatical from the demands of her usual crushing schedule.  In the Times interview, she cites that making a Deutsche Grammophon recording, entitled "Resonances," is ultimately what revived her spirits and pulled her back into her professional life. For this, we may all be grateful.

Interestingly, for this recording, she too paired the Berg Sonata with the Liszt B-minor Sonata.  Here's an excerpt from James Oestreich's article in which she relates a story about the Berg:


The works in the “Resonances” program, which she calls “a musical journey along the Danube,” were all new to her. The point of departure, she said, was Berg’s Opus 1 Sonata, which has fascinated her since she was 11 and discovered the music on her teacher’s piano.

Seeing how heavily her teacher had marked up the score, she wondered why, and what this music could possibly be. She asked to hear it, and was amazed to discover a foreign sound world, craggy with dissonance and ambiguous in its unmoored harmonies. It was one of many encounters she has had in life, she said, that she somehow knew would be meaningful to her later, and she was content to set the work aside.

Then, sure enough, the piece “sort of knocked on the door,” she said.

“It must sound completely demented,” she added, “but new repertory has always manifested itself to me. I wake up obsessed by a piece, or what I know about a piece.”

Liszt’s mighty B minor Sonata, bathed in heady chromatic harmonies, seemed a natural companion to the Berg, musically, and contributed to a more or less Austro-Hungarian theme that Ms. Grimaud carried through with Bartok’s six Romanian Folk Dances.


Hmmmm..."bathed in heady chromatic harmonies"!  Rich opportunity for analysis and coloristic interpretation, certainly. 

I imagine Pierre-Laurent Aimard, in creating his recital program, may likely have found other links beyond the Danube/Austro-Hungarian affinities of these two important pieces that appeal so strongly to pianists. 

It goes without saying that if artists are truly inspired by what they play, audiences will be, too.  For audiences, the Berg, particularly, requires very concentrated listening -- but the best way to experience it is in a passionately committed, excellently crafted performance, which I am sure M Aimard will give us.

He, too, is preparing and performing this repertoire for recording. After his Spivey Hall recital, he'll put down the Liszt Sonata for Deutsche Grammophon in Vienna, in preparation for release in commemoration of the bicentennial of Liszt's birthday in October 2011.

I am in any case keen to hear him eludicate these and other pieces by Wagner, Liszt, and Scribian in recital here -- he is one of the most penetratingly thoughtful and perceptive pianists on the international circuit today, and his Spivey Hall recital is an major musical event, not to be missed.

I am equally relieved to know that Helene Grimaud is back before the public, performing once again.


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