Wrapping up a weekend of voracious indulgence, I spent much of Sunday (April 1) in residence at Carnegie Hall. In the afternoon, I caught Joshua Bell with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields playing Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky. You'll have to wait for Tuesday's New York Times to read the full report, but what I can say right now is that this encounter exceeded expectation.
In the evening, I returned to Carnegie -- Zankel Hall this time -- for "A Promenade in 88 Keys and 300 Years," the latest performance by French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The premise was as simple as it was daring: Aimard proposed to explore the entire history of solo keyboard music through 34 short selections, ranging from Scarlatti to George Benjamin.
Aimard is of course a wizardly interpreter, but equally on display tonight were his keen intellect and droll wit, delivered in a narrative colored by the pianist's idiosyncratic English. In the first half of a nearly three-hour program, he contrasted Scarlatti's gleeful virtuosity and Bach's sober mastery, and demonstrated the vast differences among Classical-era sonata movements with giddy Haydn, chaste Mozart and sturdily constructed Beethoven. Aimard illustrated the profusion of personality-driven expressive devices pioneered by Schubert, Chopin and Schumann, and showed how late Liszt and Brahms paved the way for Janáček, Ravel and Scriabin.
On the second half of his program, Aimard pursued a thread initially spun from the orientalism of Debussy's "Etude pour les quartes," which ended the first half, to illustrate how early 20th-century composers embraced themes from outside the classical canon. He posited Bartók as the piano composer who translated Stravinsky's early barbarism to the keyboard, even as Stravinsky would go on to translate cubism into sound. Schoenberg depicted the turbulent inner conflicts being explored by Freud; Webern fashioned a new music as precise and uncluttered as Mozart's had been.
John Cage's 4' 33" was anachronistically positioned to provide a tabula rasa, in the wake of which Messiaen, Carter, Boulez and Stockhausen could invent new vocabularies. (I can't say that I've ever heard those latter two composers played more poetically.) György Kurtág's journal entries and György Ligeti's magic tricks were followed by Helmut Lachenmann's recasting the piano as a guiro and Marco Stroppa's fidgety explosions. George Benjamin's Relativity Rag, in which a jaunty theme was atomized and reconstructed with genial wit, provided a show-stopping finale.
Oddly enough, given all the complex music Aimard navigated, what most confirmed this musician's particular genius tonight was the Cage piece. Practically everything he played was prefaced by commentary that concisely described the point of its presence on the program. But his introduction to 4' 33" lingered far longer than one might have expected.
Roughly a minute into his chat, which touched on the mandatory themes of Zen, the concept of independent volition and the sound of silence, I started to suspect that Aimard's rambling comments must certainly be playing some part in his actual performance. His narrative touched on the element of misdirection that had been crucial to Cage's original conception. Today, we all know this piece was meant to demonstrate that listening intently to supposed silence can be as eventful and fascinating as attending, say, a David Tudor recital in 1952. But how can 4' 33" possibly surprise us now?
Yadda yadda, the sounds all around us; yadda yadda, unfit for radio broadcast. When is the punchline going to get here? Eventually, Aimard raised the notion of Cage's late-period collage aesthetic, whereby multiple pieces could be played simultaneously to new effect. By that logic, Aimard reasoned, the work's three movements could be juxtaposed, while at the same time overlaid with commentary -- which is what you've just heard. (Rimshot!)
What was amusing in the moment seems far more subtle, calculated and artful upon reflection. At its inception, 4' 33" was about challenging preconcieved ideas of listening as mediated by the concert hall experience. That's a good trick, but it really only works once, after which reported accounts spoil the surprise. It could be assumed that most audience members knew what Cage's piece was about: any number of jokes were circulated preemptively in the lobby during intermission.
Anticipating this, Aimard turned that very knowledge on its head, and in so doing fundamentally reinvented the piece. Where before 4' 33" had been about silence and mediation, tonight it was about anticipation and predisposition. It was the wondering about what Aimard could possibly be planning in order to surprise us that proved so delicious. More than a lark, his account of the piece was every bit as vital as anything else on his wide-ranging menu.
Obviously, there were elements of the keyboard repertoire that Aimard's program didn't touch upon -- the absence of Henry Cowell was curious, and Morton Feldman and minimalism were conspicuously absent. I would have welcomed "Opening" from Philip Glass's Glassworks or a section from John Adams's Phrygian Gates, and I teased a neighbor that the encore would be a brief hourlong snatch of Feldman's Triadic Memories. Still, what Aimard managed to compress into this chatty encounter was as entertaining as it was enlightening... and provided a most unexpected revelation along the way.
Black Sabbath - The Eternal Idol (Castle)
Philip Glass Ensemble - Music in 12 Parts (Town Hall, Feb. 14, 1981; mystery broadcast tape)
Maurice Ravel - Gaspard de la Nuit; Elliott Carter - Night Fantasies; Two Diversions; 90+ - Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Warner Classics)