Keyboard Partners Bring Spectacular Virtuosity To Bear

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Pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich are touring the U.S. with a new two-piano work by Harrison Birtwistle and music of Messiaen, Bartók, and Ravel. (Portraits by Marco Borggreve)
By Anne. E. Johnson

NEW YORK – Pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich kicked off a four-city U.S. duo recital tour on Oct. 25 at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall with an evening that included the American premiere of a work composed for them as well as Olivier Messiaen’s exploration of faith, Visions de l’Amen.

Composer Harrison Birtwistle (© Philip Gatward)

The longtime recital partners had played the world premiere of British composer Harrison Birtwistle’s Keyboard Engine: A Construction for Two Pianos at the Aldeburgh Festival in June 2018. Birtwistle clearly didn’t have in mind a slick race-car engine, but an awkward contraption that struggled, ground its gears, and shorted out.

The pointillistic opening passed notes from one pianist to the other like a medieval hocket. Sudden slams of the upper keys conjured up mechanical parts clanging to the floor. It was as if an ungainly robotic monster were trying to walk. Aimard sometimes supported the monster’s lurching with a shaking ground made of the lowest pitches on the keyboard. (Birtwistle loves the primordial sound of profound bass – just listen to his 2016 orchestral work Deep Time.) Random pauses interrupted blurts of sound, in which fingers moved so wildly – not to mention so quickly – that Stefanovich sometimes appeared to stop breathing.

The artists’ four-city U.S. tour began at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. (Steve Sherman)

For the first two thirds of this 24-minute piece, Birtwistle seems to have envisioned the clatter and creak of an old-fashioned, analog machine. Then there was a switch to a more regular, perpetuating rhythm that put one in mind of the constant chirp of computers. In one passage, discrete musical ideas seemed to catch up to each other by accident, like a room full of printers and screens that are occasionally fated to synchronize for a moment. After reaching a fevered pitch, the piece slowed to a grinding halt. It was impossible not to think of the HAL computer being disassembled at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

The fury and flurry of machines demanded spectacular virtuosity from both pianists. No wonder the Birtwistle was slated to close the first half of the concert: At intermission, a piano tuner came out to help the instruments recover from their ordeal. One hopes the artists were being equivalently looked after backstage. [Audio of Aimard and Stefanovich playing this work is available on YouTube.]

To open the program, the duo played Bartók’s Seven Pieces from Mikrokosmos. From the first little movement, “Bulgarian Rhythm,” Aimard and Stefanovich established themselves as extensions of each other. The seven pedagogical exercises, which Bartók pulled from a collection of 153 and arranged with his wife for two pianos, became miniature dramatic monologues in these pianists’ hands – and I do mean monologues, since their exactly synchronized playing seemed to represent the two halves of a single brain rather than a conversation.

Bartók’s ‘Mikrokosmos’ became miniature dramatic monologues in these pianists’ hands. (Sherman)

An early work (composed 1895-97) by Ravel, the Sites auriculaires acted as palate-cleanser before the far more substantial Birtwistle. The first movement is a Habanera; Stefanovich provided both Impressionistic flutters and a slyly restrained bassline syncopation. In the second movement, “Entre cloches” (Among Bells), Aimard’s strident pealing contrasted oddly with his colleague’s grace, as if they disagreed on the type of metal these bells were made from.

The second half of the concert was devoted to the nearly 50-minute Visions de l’Amen by Olivier Messiaen, a work the composer described as “Seven musical visions to express the wealth and meaning contained in the word ‘Amen.’” He wrote it in 1943, not long after being released from the German P.O.W. camp where he famously composed his Quartet for the End of Time. And while much of Messiaen’s music is spiritual in nature, this work is specifically religious, informed by his Catholicism.

In an interview published on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Sounds and Stories blog, Stefanovich described the pianists’ roles in the Messiaen thus: “We’re like two cathedral builders who each start on a different side of the cathedral, and we find each other at the end on the very top.” I found that metaphor instructive as I listened to these two keyboard masters build this towering work onstage.

Messiaen: distant bells call the universe to order.(Durand)

The murky chaos of the opening “Amen de la création” conjures up the programmatic introduction to Haydn’s Creation, except that here the Church is the great organizing concept, manifested by distant bells that call the universe to order. Aimard’s plaintive style laid out an appropriate foundation to the cathedral. “Amen de l’agonie de Jésus” focused on the Savior’s pain, not on sorrow, with the pianos drawing out anguished, angular lines. For the only time during the recital, Aimard and Stefanovich let sentimentality take over in “Amen de désir”; it could have been a film score by Maurice Jarre.

“Amen des anges, des saints, du chant des oiseaux” shone with Stefanovich’s gossamer touch through choir and birdsong passages that opened into a veritable aviary of bravura with no metrical mooring. The mood shifted for the weighty, relentless “Amen du jugement,” with the two pianists in astonishingly exact ensemble.

The final movement, “Amen de la consommation,” symbolically covered the entire universe of pitch, with Stefanovich playing top and bottom registers and Aimard in the middle. The cathedral was reaching its completion with broad hammer strokes, as Aimard pounded out Mussorgsky-like chords containing melody and Stefanovich made the materials glow with fast figuration until the spire pierced the clouds.

Remaining tour dates for Aimard and Stefanovich: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Oct. 30) and University of California at Berkeley (Nov. 1).

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.