Thursday, May 22, 2008

Aimard's Bach

I am fairly familiar with Pierre-Laurent Aimard's work through his performances of György Ligeti and Pierre Boulez, so I - like many reviewers - approached his recording of Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge with some trepidation. It is, however, as I almost expected, an intelligent and articulate exposition of one of Bach's towering masterpieces.

Hugo Shirley, on Musical Criticism, had this to say,
Listening to the concentration and sheer pianistic skill on show on this new recording, though, this definitely muscles its way in as an important addition to the catalogue. Immediately any fears we might have about Aimard mastering the notes and delineating the counterpoint clearly and cleanly are allayed. His technique is such that he's able to articulate clearly the voices within the most complex textures, dotted-rhythms are always tight and passage-work is purposeful and strong.
I agree, more or less, with that assessment. I have reservations about Bach - especially something like Kunst - on a modern fortepiano (unless Glenn Gould is at the keyboard). Aimard discusses this at some length in the interview contained in the liner notes. He notes,
In fact, The Art of Fugue is written for a keyboard instrument, but which one? The harpsichord seems to be suitable for Contrapuncti II and IX and Canons I and III, whereas Contrapuncti I, III, V and X are better suited to the organ. In turn, the expressive but interior lament of Canon IV suggests a clavichord. And then there is Contrapunctus IV, which evokes a chamber-music ensemble, Contrapunctus XII, which seems to have been conceived for an a cappella choir, and the highly expressive Contrapunctus XI, in which the successive chorales contribute to a powerful sense of drama, plunging us with its daring modulations and insistent chromaticism into the world of the Passions.
He goes on to say, "Properly regulated, the modern piano of our day, with its wide range of possibilities, is an excellent instrument for The Art of Fugue, allowing a realization that is both convincing and unrestricted."

I suppose, ultimately, my preference for Bach on the harpsichord comes from the lack of dynamics imposed by that instrument. The contrapuntal writing of Kunst (i.a.) works best, to my ears, when every voice is given equal prominence. Unless one is superhuman (e.g., Gould), a modern fortepiano can allow one voice to be given more attention or prominence. I don't Aimard falls into that trap altogether, but there are times that I think he falls somewhat short of Gould's standards.

Of course, Gould recorded many of the Contrapuncti on an organ and was probably the greatest pianist of his generation (and on the all-time shortlist), so that's not a fair comparison. It's inescapable, however. All in all, Aimard's record is a very good one. We've seen stuff like Simone Dinnerstein's echt-Romantic wallow through the Goldberg Variations of late. (Or is it ersatz? I can't remember. It seems to have a weird duality to it.) It is nice to have intelligent and high-quality Bach on a major label by a major pianist.

Aimard's modern-repertoire training, I am sure, served him well. I am sort of reminded of Pollini's reference account of Boulez' Piano Sonata no. 2 and his brilliant Hammerklavier, from something like 1977 and 1978 respectively in reverse. In Aimard's case (though it's applicable to Pollini, too), one might be afraid of a certain emotional vacuum in his work, given his impeccable modernist credentials. Of course, some facility with Aimard's Ligeti would show that there is plenty of feeling, but appropriate feeling - none of this emotion for its own sake nonsense. Aimard presents Kunst with precision, concern for the variables that separate good Bach from bad Bach (vis-à-vis performance, never text), and intelligence.

It's also interesting - as well as heartening - to see the major label début of a major performer be something as challenging and serious as Bach's Kunst der Fuge. Deutsche Grammophon, I am sure, would have felt more comfortable with some Chopin or Beethoven. Even within the realm of Bach's solo keyboard music, Kunst is a fairly difficult - in a lot of ways - BWV entry. Aimard deserves some credit for choosing the work, and DGG deserves some credit for allowing him to do so.

All in all, a good release. It might be one of the better ones of the last few years.