Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Paul and Dee on Jan 17th concert

We must admit that we’ve been looking forward to this program since it was announced last spring. We are self-confessed Pierre-Laurent Aimard idolaters. If there was a celebrity fan magazine devoted to the world’s greatest pianists, we’d have his fold-out picture up on the wall over our stereo. We know not everyone admires his approach at all times, feeling that he brings to the older canon too much of his training with and predilection for the post-war avant-garde. But we like his severe, pure aesthetic, the way he (at his best) can strip the sometimes dead weight of tradition off the performance of the 18th and 19th century canon. As a performer, (see his interpretation of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” on DG last year) he seems, with the rigor of a scientist, to prefer to go back to first principles in thinking about a piece. Paul says he visualizes Aimard bearing in his hands like a gift the post-war canon as he journeys back to meet with its progenitors.

Dee: For me, Aimard and the SPCO’s performance of the Emperor concerto was a highpoint of an already surprising and always interesting festival. And this particular Beethoven—there is such beauty overflowing from the piece that it would seem difficult for the performers to plumb more, but they do. Pierre-Laurent Aimard represents the delicate beauty of the concerto with seeming ease—like Paul, I feel so much of the performance rests in his hands, whether rippling down the keyboard, pretending to be swans to solicit lovely tones, or as fists launching salvos. The SPCO musicians too, seem to bond instantly with Aimard’s intent. I don’t hear any questions in the piece; just faith that all is not only well with the world, but can also that the world can be beautiful.

Paul: Despite our musings on Aimard above, which may deceptively make it appear like we think we know something, I found myself quite surprised by the performance. I expected a rigorously abstract performance, but, as usual when a performance is well thought out, my preconceptions were dashed by the live performance’s surprises. This lovely interpretation of the Emperor revealed to me the insouciance under Beethoven’s typical muscularity. Aimard and the SPCO played this piece in a deceptively relaxed style, moving under Aimard’s lead in an instant from vigorous to stately to insistent. In their hands, this concerto was delicately taut.

After the break, it was on to the Goebbels composition from 2007. We would like to mention as prologue that we admired the guts of the programming here, putting the new piece after the old and much-loved classic. The usual convention these days seems to be to reward the audience for sitting through the unfamiliar by saving the familiar composition they know and love for last. This decision made internal sense too, as it turned out; the Goebbels piece was highly dramatic (see our last review, in which Paul rather plaintively asks why European high art music doesn’t employ the language of theater more—never mind!).

Speaking of theatrics, we were both impressed with the manner in which the whole stage was used to allow the correct mood and properties for the Goebbels. The planners simply arranged for a curtain behind the first work to hide the homey, lamp-lit set that was pre-arranged for the second.

Anu Tali, conducting the London Sinfonietta and The Orchestra for the Age of Enlightenment, highlights adeptly the questions that seem to stream from this work. The questions and conversational comments that run through the piece are the same now as they were in post-war Europe; to paraphrase: “How long has it been going on now, this war? … even I, who used to be optimistic have become fairly pessimistic, now.” Tali does not shy away from the silences inherent to our knowledge of our involvement or noninvolvement in recent wars. She allows Goebbels messages to sink in at many levels: the stark contrasts befit its multi-layered complexity. Among other things, it seemed to us a meditation on the Enlightenment as a progenitor for both good and ill of the “modern” world from the perspective of a fragmented “postmodern” aesthetic. The Baroque, as representation of the Enlightenment’s dawn, young, fresh and optimistic, keeps erupting into the composition’s present, the twentieth century world wars which seemed to dash the hopes of the Enlightenment regarding the efficacy of the progress of knowledge. We also see the Enlightenment in its 19th century maturity and flowering, as represented by its legacy teaching us to perceive the world anew through science, the very science that collapses us into the morass of the twentieth century.

Moreover, the readings of Gertrude Stein’s wartime letters throughout the piece demonstrate starkly the potential oppressiveness of a patriarchal scientific “objectivity,” a point the piece also “stages” by having the women form a community in the front of the stage, while the men form percussive cadre in the back.

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