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S & H International Concert Review

Ivesí Concord Sonata played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Zankel Hall, New York City, May 17, 2004 (BH)



Carter: Two Diversions (1999)
Carter: Night Fantasies (1988)
Ives: Sonata No. 2 for Piano, "Concord, Mass., 1840-60" (1911-20)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano



In an insightful comment in John Linkís excellent program notes, a thirty-year-old Elliott Carter denounces Charles Ivesí Concord Sonata for being "full of the paraphernalia of the over-dressy sonata school, cyclical themes, contrapuntal development sections that lead nowhere, constant harmonic movement which does not clarify the form, and dramatic rather than rhythmical effects." Carter probably could not have predicted that, sixty-five years later, in Pierre-Laurent Aimardís fiercely elegant recital, that his own work would appear as a thoroughly intriguing preamble to that of his might-be nemesis, and further, that the audience would be packed with those who find these attributes appealing. (Perhaps in the succeeding years Carter has changed his mind a bit.)

Two Diversions was written in 1999 with "intermediate" level pianists in mind, and their lean, Bach-influenced terrain is immediately engaging. The second one, with its left and right hands in competition, speeding up and slowing down, brings to mind one of Conlon Nancarrowís player-piano studies with its similar concerns. Aimardís cleanly done work seemed ideally matched for a piece in which Carter speaks almost plaintively.

Mr. Carter is at his most unyielding (to these ears) in Night Fantasies, a monolithic evocation of sleep and restlessness, and also tailor-made for Aimardís prodigious technique. If I confess to being a trifle puzzled by the work itself, it is only because I am a relative latecomer to Carter, only recently beginning to find pleasure in some of his works, despite my intellectual admiration and acknowledgement that he is probably Americaís greatest living composer. None of this, however, diminishes the fabulously assured playing by Mr. Aimard, not to mention his astuteness in placing these two giants on the same program. Carter really makes quite the companion to Ives (perhaps to the chagrin of both), since each loves to alternate blocks of sound as dense as concrete with passages that float off into the ether. If Carter is more economical, Ives shows us that "more is more" can be just as valid. If Carter is more rigorous in form, Ives shows us that a true pioneer can create any type of structure he damn well pleases. But I get ahead of myself.

During the enthusiastic applause following Night Fantasies, the pianist bounded off the Zankel Hall stage, walked up the side aisle to greet Mr. Carter, and stood next to him for a good minute or so while the two of them chatted and acknowledged the cheering. It can only make one smile to see the youthful 95-year-old composer running around New York City, seemingly everywhere and beaming with delight with the adulation.

It is a singular season when not one, but two outstanding Concordís can be heard in such close proximity, and just a few weeks ago I was fortunate to hear Marilyn Nonken, in a deeply spiritual mode, traverse Ivesí masterpiece at the Italian Academy at Columbia University. (I hope eventually her take on it will be preserved, as well as Aimardís, for a different perspective on a work that is currently under-recorded, presumably because of its difficulty.) Ivesí bulging suitcase of a sonata is widely regarded to be one of the most formidable pieces in the entire canon, and presents multiple challenges for both pianists and listeners. For musicians, aside from just tackling a score that must have one of the highest notes-per-page ratios in the literature, the trick seems how to clarify its uncompromisingly dense textures so that a listener can perceive what Ives did Ė to hear everything that he heard. And clearly he heard a lot. For listeners, they must try to abandon many preconceptions about motion and structure, and then fly with the composerís seemingly farfetched and messy creativity.

From the moment Emerson began, one could sense that Aimard had mapped out the piece with a lucidity that might baffle some of his fellow cartographers. As in the Carter before, one could only marvel at the playing Ė whether or not one even liked the piece. In the second section, Hawthorne, Aimard seemed possessed by the score, almost a manic fiend at the keyboard, and most pianos will probably never experience the kind of violent percussive charge that he gave to its climaxes. In between, he brought an ethereal hush to the sections calling for a long wooden block, used to gently depress the black keys. The third section, The Alcotts, is about as pastoral as the sonata ever gets, and Aimard provided many dreamy moments of contemplation, with such focus that the blond wood walls of Zankel Hall seemed to gently darken and fade into the background. The final Thoreau was mesmerizing all the way through to its questioning, ambiguous ending, with Aimardís hands fixed, held in the air above the keyboard as if he were recalling a massive engineering project he couldnít quite believe heíd completed.

Afterward several of us mused on a suitable encore for the occasion, such as an arrangement of Stars and Stripes Forever, or Ivesí own Study No. 21: Some Southpaw Pitching. Or perhaps Aimard might have just repeated Hawthorne before going off to soak his overworked limbs in a hot tub. But none was forthcoming, and in a way, nothing in the wake of the Carter and the Concord would have provided any additional fire to what was by any measure, a formidable evening by one of the greatest pianists on the scene today.

Bruce Hodges


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