Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard delivered a stunning reading of Liszt’s B-Minor Piano Sonata to close a WPAS-sponsored recital at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue on Thursday. This pinnacle of Liszt’s pianistic writing has been pummeled into submission by so many budding keyboard firebrands that it’s easy for listeners to forget how much nuance is really in the work.
Aimard has clearly not forgotten. His ability to differentiate subtle layers of dynamics — even through the most sweeping and complex pages of the score — brought a sense of tremendous power being held in-check until those moments when it made emotional sense to release it.
Aimard has long been revered for his clearheaded way with thorny 20th-century works, and that skill set no doubt accounted for Liszt-playing of uncommon clarity and razor-sharp balancing of inner voices. But anyone familiar with the pianist’s freshly imagined, sensitively molded recordings of the Beethoven concertos will know that Aimard is far more than just a cerebral modernist. Indeed, some of the most memorable moments in his B-Minor Sonata on Thursday were the quietly lyrical ones, where he caressed the music with a pearly roundedness of tone.
But the composer’s stormier moments registered just as vividly. Aimard practically blurted out Liszt’s jagged fragments of melody, leaving them to hang tensely in the air before wrestling them into fitful, extended trains of musical thought. As with any great keyboard performer, Aimard found a way to let the music sound as it might have under the composer’s fingers as he created it, while keeping enough perspective on the piece to reveal its shape and explicate its mysteries as the most engaging of scholars might do.
And as if the sonata wasn’t enough of a revelatory treat, the first half of the program was an intriguing puzzle box of unexpectedly interrelated works. Liszt figured prominently here as well, in three short, late-career works — the somber deconstruction of a gondolier’s song, “La Lugubre Gondola,” the proto-impressionistic “Nuages Gris,” and the alternately eruptive and stifled miniature drama “Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro” — all of which find the composer drawing on tradition while experimenting with form, and creating music that presaged much of what was to come.
In a canny bit of programming, Aimard interleaved these Liszt pieces with three single-movement sonatas by other composers who also took older models and sought to rethink their form. Wagner’s Mathilde Wesendonck-inspired A-flat Sonata, “Fur das Album von Frau MW,” looks back to early Beethoven but adds a chromatic edge. Berg’s Op. 1 Sonata curdles the traditional romantic sonata with encroaching dissonance. And Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9 (“Black Mass”) takes off into even freer-form harmonic and structural realms.
Playing the pieces with barely a break between them created a web of free-associative connections from one to the next, evoking an era when long-accepted music wisdom was exploding into shards of new thinking. It’s to Aimard’s credit that each work emerged as stylistically unique and uniquely enthralling.
Banno is a freelance writer.