In Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus the late music of Beethoven is described as “an art that had overgrown itself”. Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s performance of the Hammerklavier sonata at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was a harrowing portrait of music at the absolute limits.
Aimard is a renowned performer of 20th-century repertory – Boulez, Messiaen, Stockhausen – and brings this grasp of textural contrast and the magic of discontinuity to Beethoven. András Schiff says he is disappointed when congratulated on a ‘beautiful’ performance of this sonata; Aimard must feel the same way. This is not to suggest oppressive crudeness or harshness, though the raw power of his first movement, where his stamping literally shook the Steinway’s frame, was tremendous. Aimard’s first movement contained many lingering and sculpted moments, meticulously examining texture and cadence through a delicate relaxation of tempo or discrete accent.
Perhaps the only slackening of the work’s nervous energies came at the opening of the scherzo, which wanted for rhythmic consistency. But Aimard’s piano playing contains the crystalline brittleness of his teacher Yvonne Loriod, and this jerky, loping music set the teeth on edge. Aimard made this a work of abrupt changes of mood and direction: the machine-gun Czárdás section seemed to come out of nowhere, its furious energies disappearing just as mysteriously.
Some pianists are drawn to play the cantabile second theme of the slow movement with tenderness and elegance, as if anticipating the studied melancholy of Chopin; so too can languorous speeds stand in for profundity. Aimard eschews both approaches. The dotted rhythm smoothed out by many pianists at this melody’s outset pinched against its accompaniment; even in the most effusive moments Aimard made Beethoven’s lyricism sound like music fighting for breath. Aimard’s performance spotlights a special quality of isolation in late Beethoven.
Aimard’s finale combines clarity and ferocity.The tempo of the fugue itself was hair-raising. In this he realised one of the central paradoxes of Beethoven’s contrapuntal final movement: the more and more the highly formalised structure attempts to contain the music’s irascible energy, the more and more it breaks apart, becoming subordinated to these forces instead of containing them. Aimard relishes the dissonances and density of Beethoven’s part-writing, and the more clearly he explicated it the more opaque it became.
Where Beethoven lashes out, Charles Ives reaches. He is an avuncular visionary, whose experimentalism feels generous and radiant. The ‘Concord’ Piano Sonata is named for the transcendentalist greats of New England, for which each movement offers an impression: Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, Thoreau. Its title invites punning reflection on the extraordinarily expansive approach to harmony we find in the work, whose added sixths, ninths, and cluster chords conjure a different musical order. So too Ives considers the relationship between music and literature, translating Emerson’s extravagant oratory into musical prose, and writing his own ‘Essays Before a Sonata’ about it.
Aimard’s sound throughout was of a different order: garrulous, luminous, and inviting. The fantastical second movement, after Nathaniel Hawthorne, is full of glittering passagework that Aimard’s training in Messiaen allowed him to despatch with apparent ease, his mobile eyebrows jumping around to Ives’ madcap humour and honky-tonk pastiche. Its countervailing section, a reverie, had Aimard depress alternating blocks of white and black keys with a strip of wood. ‘The Alcotts’ followed with understated homeliness, from which Ives grows the quoted motto of Beethoven’s fifth symphony into something hymn-like and serene.
It’s ‘Concord, Mass.’, of course. Another pun suggesting the work’s processional character, a communion, complete with hymn-tunes, with the great writers of the age. It’s this mood that Aimard summoned in the final movement, ‘Thoreau.’