The season at the CSO includes a series of 10 piano recitals on Sunday afternoons – clearly I’m not the only one who enjoys the format. Yesterday’s matinee performance packed two pianists and two concert grand Steinways onto the stage – Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, both veteran interpreters of The 20th century and contemporary piano repertoire. Aimard is one of the foremost experts on the music of Messiaen – he studied extensively with the 20th century composer’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, with whom the legendary composer worked closely until his death in 1992. Messiaen was instrumental in the development of the contemporary great Pierre Boulez, with whom both Stefanovich and Aimard have also worked closely over the years.
Rooted in the world of the experimental and complex compositional techniques of the 20th century, Aimard and Stefanovich are currently on tour with a carefully curated program that celebrates their specialties. First up was a series of studies from Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, composed in the tradition of Bartok’s friend and colleague Zoltan Kodaly, the Hungarian pedagogue famous for his integration of folk music into formal pedagogy. The studies were quick and playful, a nice opening and the only pieces on the program that could be considered, on any level, whimsical. I think Aimard even cracked a smile at one point!
Ravel was up next, a two-part composition for two pianos called Sites Auriculaires (places heard, or places remembered through sound), composed in 1895/97. I’ve listened to a fair amount of Ravel, and this piece was the most familiar musically to me. The first part, Habanera, was inspired by a Baudelaire poem, and evokes the simple movements of a repetitive dance step. The second part, Entre Cloches (Among Bells), paints a portrait of a rustic village called to devotion on a Sunday morning.
The final piece prior to intermission is the 2017 piece Keyboard Engine, composed by Sir Harrison Birtwistle on a commission specifically for Aimard and Stefanovich. The program notes include a quote by Paul Griffiths that sum up the composition well, “There is a sense, the composer suggests, of a machine that is in hectic activity but stationary. We are not being taken anywhere; we are observing wild action, though this constructed whirlwind can be interrupted by gentle contrapuntal song.” Pleasure was not what the piece was about for me, but it was interesting to see the subtle interplays between the two pianos under the manifestly deft hands of the pianists.
The final half of the program was Olivier Messiaen’s epic Visions de l’Amen, a 1943 composition that was written explicitly to convey a tremendous breadth of transcendent religious experience ranging from the creation, to human desire, to Christ’s suffering, to judgment, and to a glorious transformation to paradise. It’s a breathtakingly serious work, and Aimard seemed distracted upon beginning. Several times the pianists placed their hands one their keyboards as if to begin, then removed them again. Finally, Aimard addressed the audience, a heavily French-accented, “Could we have quiet please?” Once begun, the piece took on the quality of a reverent mass. The final bars are truly rapturous.
I admit that much of the music in this program was over my head. I am working to learn more about music theory, which will help me better appreciate pieces that break with the musical structures with which I’m the most familiar.
I did make a non-musical observation of the crowd at Symphony Center that had not dawned on me prior to yesterday, but in thinking back it holds for all the concerts I’ve been to by myself. There’s a huge gender disparity when it comes to attendees who fly solo at the venue – almost all are men. I’m not sure what to make of that, except to say I obviously fit right in.
Thanks for reading.