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With astonishing mastery of a broad scope of styles, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard displays an unrivaled musical understanding and sensitivity. From the imagination of Messiaen to the not-to-be-missed masterpiece Musica ricercata, Aimard’s range is distinctive in a program that concludes with Beethoven’s powerful “Hammerklavier” Sonata.

Please note that this concert will take place at Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College.  Learn more here.

“Aimard’s stupendous technique, remorseless energy and fanatical…passion, were wondrous to encounter.”—The Times (UK)

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    Pierre-Laurent Aimard

    Widely acclaimed as a key figure in the music of our time and as a uniquely significant interpreter of piano repertoire from every age, Pierre-Laurent Aimard enjoys an internationally celebrated career.

    He performs throughout the world each season with major orchestras under conductors including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Peter Eötvös, Sir Simon Rattle and Vladimir Jurowski. He has been invited to curate, direct and perform in a number of residencies, with projects at Carnegie Hall, New York's Lincoln Center, Vienna's Konzerthaus, Berlin's Philharmonie, Frankfurt’s Alte Oper, the Lucerne Festival, Mozarteum Salzburg, Cité de la Musique in Paris, the Tanglewood Festival and London's Southbank Centre. Aimard was the Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 2009 to 2016, his final season was marked by a performance of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux with the concerts programmed from dawn to midnight.

    This season sees Pierre-Laurent continue his trio partnership with Mark Simpson and Antoine Tamestit, and the development of an innovative programme of concerts for Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. He performs with The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and Paavo Järvi in Taiwan, and returns to the orchestra in spring 2017 for concerts in Germany. As well as engagements with Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Cleveland Orchestra, Aimard joins the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen for a series of concerts, entitled ‘Inspirations’. He continues his life-long association with the music of Messiaen, performing his works in Switzerland, Cambridge, Seoul, Prague, London, The Netherlands, Montreal, Munich, Salzburg, Tanglewood and Ravinia and in 2016 he was awarded the prestigious Helpmann award for Best Individual Classical Performance for his recitals of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards in Sydney and Melbourne.

    Born in Lyon in 1957, Pierre-Laurent Aimard studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Yvonne Loriod and in London with Maria Curcio. Early career landmarks included winning first prize in the 1973 Messiaen Competition at the age of 16 and being appointed, three years later, by Pierre Boulez to become the Ensemble intercontemporain's first solo pianist.

    Aimard has had close collaborations with many leading composers including Kurtág, Stockhausen, Carter, Boulez and George Benjamin and had a long association with Ligeti, recording his complete works for piano.  Most recently he performed the world premiere of piano works by Kurtág at a celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday. Recent seasons have included the world premieres of Harrison Birtwistle’s piano concerto Responses; Sweet disorder and the carefully careless, as well as Carter’s last piece Epigrams for piano, cello and violin, which was written for Pierre-Laurent. Through his professorship at the Hochschule Köln as well as numerous series of concert lectures and workshops worldwide, he sheds an inspiring and very personal light on music of all periods.

    During the 2008-09 season Aimard was an Associate Professor at the College de France, Paris and he is a member of the Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste. He was the recipient of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Instrumentalist Award in spring 2005 and was named ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’ by Musical America in 2007. In 2015 he launched a major online resource centred on the performance and teaching of Ligeti’s piano music with filmed masterclasses and performances of the Études and other works by Ligeti in collaboration with Klavier-Festival Ruhr. (www.explorethescore.org)

    Pierre-Laurent has made many highly successful recordings. His first Deutsche Grammophon release, Bach's Art of Fugue, received both the Diapason d'Or and Choc du Monde de la Musique awards, debuted at No.1 on Billboard's classical chart and topped iTunes’ classical album download chart. In recent years Pierre-Laurent has been honoured with ECHO Klassik Awards, most recently in 2009 for his recording of solo piano pieces, 'Hommage à Messiaen', a Grammy award in 2005 for his recording of Ives’ Concord Sonata and Songs and he was also presented with Germany’s Schallplattenkritik Honorary Prize in 2009. Further releases for DG – ‘The Liszt Project’ in 2011 and Debussy Préludes in 2012 – were joined by a new recording of Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier Book 1 in 2014.  

    "…a brilliant musician and an extraordinary visionary." —The Wall Street Journal

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

"Le courlis cendré" from Catalogue d'oiseaux

View Notes

Throughout his life Olivier Messiaen was fascinated by birds and birdsong. His second wife, Yvonne Loriod, recalled a story from the composer himself: “[Messiaen] was 18 months old, and being pushed in a pram by his mother, when a bird began to sing, and he immediately threw down his bottle and raised his hand to tell his mother to be quiet and listen to the bird.” As an adult, Messiaen traveled throughout the world, notating and recording the songs of birds, and so passionate was he about hearing new birdsong that he would sometimes sleep in barns so that he could hear the morning song of birds.

Birdsong began to appear in Messiaen’s music when he was still a young man, but in the 1950s it became a central feature of his music. In 1951 he wrote a brief work for flute and piano called Le merle noir (“The Blackbird”), and this was followed by a piano concerto called Reveil des oiseaux (“Wakening of Birds,” 1953), Oiseaux exotiques (“Exotic Birds,” 1956), and Catalogue d’oiseaux (“Catalog of Birds,” composed 1956-1958). Birdsong would remain an important part of Messiaen’s music across the long span of his career, and Yvonne Loriod has noted that it had a religious significance for him: “Messiaen always used to say, ‘I was born a believer,’ and never at any point in his life did he have a shadow of doubt. And birds were for him master musicians who sang to the glory of God, and he himself wanted to sing as they do.”

The most imposing and comprehensive of Messiaen’s birdsong-inspired works is his massive Catalogue d’oiseaux, a collection of 13 pieces for solo piano, each titled with the name of a specific bird. Messiaen gathered these 13 pieces, composed over the span of two years, and published them in seven books. The complete Catalogue d’oiseaux takes about 2½ hours to perform, and most performances offer only excerpts.

Catalogue d’oiseaux is not simply a collection of pieces inspired by the song of a specific bird. Instead, each movement is a small music-drama. Each is set in a specific location, which is evoked musically. Each features a main character, the bird of the title and its song. Each creates a supporting cast of surrounding birds and their songs. And each is based on a brief scenario, which Messiaen published in the score. Catalogue d’oiseaux begins in the extreme southeast part of France with a piece set in the Alps, and over the course of this vast composition the setting gradually moves across France so that the 13th and final piece concludes on the shores of Brittany. And so Catalogue d’oiseaux is more than just music inspired by birdsong–it is a musical, ornithological, and geographical tour of France.

Le courlis cendre, the final piece in the Catalogue, completes Messiaen’s journey on the bleak island of Ushant (Ouessant in French), off the far west coast of Brittany.  The courlis cendre is the Eurasian curlew bird, and in the score Messiaen describes its cry as “slow and sad tremolos, chromatic motifs, savage trills, and a tragically repeated call that expresses all desolation.” The delicate opening, marked triste (sad), introduces us to the soft cries of this curlew in its lonely setting, and soon we hear the carefully-notated calls of specific birds: black-headed gull, silver seagull, common redshank, guillemot, sandwich tern, and others.  Their cries are interrupted by the rough sound of waves, rumbling up from the depths, and then fog and increasing darkness arrive with a steady sequence of triple forte chords. These chords grow quiet as fog and night take hold, and suddenly we hear a massive chord, a blast from the warning foghorn of the Créac’h Lighthouse (Ushant has a number of spectacular lighthouses, and this blast of sound is the only moment in the entire Catalogue d’oiseaux when human agency intrudes on the world of birds). The birds cry out in response to these repeated blasts, and after one final call from the curlew, marked “tragic and desolate” in the score, the music fades into silence on what Messiaen calls bruit du ressac: the noise of the surf.

––Eric Bromberger, © 2018

György Ligeti (1923-2006)

Musica ricercata

View Notes

Like his countryman Béla Bartók, György Ligeti was born in a part of Hungary that is now in Romania; that sense of a displaced homeland may be a key to understanding Ligeti, for his life and career were shaped by many of the forces that erupted so violently in his native land across the 20th century. Ligeti was born in 1923 into a Hungarian Jewish family, and it was a very musical family indeed—his great-uncle was the esteemed violinist Leopold Auer. Ligeti spent most of his childhood in Romania and began his formal musical studies at the conservatory in Cluj, but this was during World War II, and catastrophe soon struck the Ligeti family: the 21-year-old György was sent to a labor camp, the rest of the family to concentration camps. His brother and father died in these camps, and only his mother survived Auschwitz.

Ligeti resumed his musical studies in Budapest after the war and eventually joined the faculty of the Franz Liszt Academy. But this was a miserable time to be a young composer in a country under Soviet domination. Socialist Realism demanded music accessible to the masses and based on the correct political sentiments—with this backdrop, Ligeti found himself limited to composing choruses, children’s music, and pieces based on folk melodies. Even the music of Bartók, Hungary’s greatest 20th-century composer, was banned in Hungary because of its difficulties, and Ligeti realized that he would never have the freedom to develop as a composer if he remained there. In December 1956, two months after the Russians crushed the Hungarian Revolution, Ligeti escaped across the border with his wife.

Once in the West, the young composer discovered a musical world that had been denied him in his homeland, including the European avant-garde, electronic music, and composers like Stockhausen. After early experimentation with electronic music, Ligeti sought and created new sound-worlds of his own. These included his famous (or infamous) Poème symphonique, scored for a hundred metronomes: the metronomes, each set at a different tempo, are wound up and released at precisely the same instant–gradually their beats go in and out of phase and the metronomes wind down, leaving only one ticking into silence (one German radio station was so outraged by this piece that it refused to broadcast it, much to Ligeti’s delight). A more daring work was his Atmosphères of 1961 in which Ligeti destroys any notion of the traditional language of music—there are no themes, no form, no harmony, and virtually no rhythm. He replaces these with huge blocks of sound that remain unchanged for long periods; beneath these static sound masses, many smaller voices develop and interweave, a technique Ligeti called micropolyphony. And then came an unexpected breakthrough. Without the composer’s permission, director Stanley Kubrick used excerpts from Ligeti’s Atmosphères, Lux Aeterna, and other works in his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and suddenly Ligeti’s music and name were familiar to audiences around the world.

Ligeti went on to compose a large body of impressive works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, voice, and the opera Le grand macabre (whose overture is performed by an ensemble of automobile horns). But if Ligeti sought new sonorities and means of expression, he remained profoundly aware and respectful of the past—for example, he described his Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano as an act of homage to Brahms, who had written a similar trio. Ligeti’s music is the product of a profoundly original mind—it can be densely textured, glittering in its sonorities, and seething with rhythmic energy, yet all of this is carefully controlled; his scores are prefaced with exact instructions as to how they should be performed. Ligeti’s music creates an utterly original sound-world, and for those willing to enter that world, it has a magic all its own.

Musica Ricercata is one of Ligeti’s earliest works to remain in the repertory: he wrote it in 1951-53, when he was in his late 20s and still under the artistic strictures of the communist government. Yet even here we can see signs of Ligeti’s incredible musical imagination. Musica Ricercata means “music to seek out,” and the title ricercar has come to denote music that tries to demonstrate a particular compositional approach (Bach gave the title Ricercar to several of the movements in his Musical Offering). In his Musica Ricerata, Ligeti sets himself a formidable musical challenge: the first piece is built on just two pitches (A and D), the second on three pitches, and so on—each subsequent movement adds one more pitch until the eleventh and final piece is built on all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.  One of the most impressive things about these eleven pieces is that Ligeti is able to do so much with so little. He sets the pieces in different forms, creates a different sound for each, and arranges them in a sequence of contrasting moods, tempos, and complexity. With each successive piece he has one more pitch to work with, and the sequence becomes increasingly complex as it proceeds.

The first movement is built entirely on the note A, in different rhythms and octaves, and D makes its appearance only in the final measures.

The second movement—Mesto [sad], rigido—is darker in character: the grieving main theme rocks back and forth between pitches, and the movement fades into silence on tremolos played with two fingers.

The next two movements are a little lighter. The Allegro con spirito, built on four pitches, is indeed spirited music, featuring rapid exchanges between the hands. In the Tempo di valse, Ligeti asks the pianist to play the waltz in a way that suggests the sound of a cranked barrel-organ; an occasional measure of 2/4 upsets the waltz-rhythm 3/4.

The title of the fifth movement, Rubato. Lamentoso, suggests its dark character; it is built on parlando rhythms, meant to mimic speech patterns, and fades away to the sound of tolling bells.

The sixth movement, Allegro molto capriccioso, is the shortest in Musica Ricercata, whipping past in about thirty seconds. It often sounds like a children’s song, with quick exchanges between hands.

In the seventh movement, Cantabile, molto legato, Ligeti creates a whirring seven-note ostinato in the left hand that is independent of the right, which plays a gentle tune above it. Ligeti writes out only the right-hand part, leaving pianists to perform the ostinato on their own; at the end of the movement, that ostinato dissolves into a quiet trill.

The eighth movement—Vivace. Energico—is a sturdy chordal dance in 7/8 that appears to have its roots in folk music.

Ligeti titled the ninth movement Béla Bartók: In Memoriam, and it should be understood as a gesture of homage to his countryman and fellow composer. Ligeti specifies that the beginning should sound “Like deep bells,” and this slow movement rises to a tolling peak before fading into silence.

Ligeti titles the tenth movement Vivace. Capriccioso, and this brief movement requires equal measures of energy, humor, and virtuosity. It drives to a climax that Ligeti stresses that he wants played Wie verrückt (“As if insane”) before trailing off to an understated conclusion (a revealing aside: when Ligeti arranged this movement as the finale of his Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, the Hungarian government blocked its performance at the premiere in September 1956, claiming that it was “too dangerous”).

In the final movement, Ligeti finally has all twelve tones at his disposal. He builds this piece on all twelve of those tones, but he also conceives the movement as an act of homage to the 17th-century Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi, famed for his contrapuntal imagination. This movement takes the form of a fugue, and at moments sounds very much like the opening movement of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Sometimes written on as many as four staves, Ligeti’s fugue gradually thins out its textures and concludes on a solitary A, the note on which the opening piece of Musica Ricercata was built.

 ––Eric Bromberger, © 2017

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106, "Hammerklavier"

View Notes

In 1817, Beethoven’s health was poor, his income was dwindling, and legal battles over the custody of his nephew Karl were taking their toll on him—all while his deafness had virtually isolated him from the rest of society. If life was a struggle for the composer at this time, so was composition. His sketchbooks show that the Piano Sonata in B-flat, Op. 106, which was composed during this period, required of Beethoven a level of intensity that was unusual even for him. Yet he considered this immense effort worthwhile, mentioning to a friend, “I am now writing a sonata that will be my greatest.”

Some critics have suggested that by the time Beethoven wrote the Op. 106 sonata, known informally as the “Hammerklavier,” the composer’s deafness had caused him to forget “the realities” of writing for the piano, and that he conceived this music in “absolute” terms. Certainly there are passages that are almost unplayable and require a super-human effort, but calling upon that determination and involving oneself in the physical and emotional struggle of performance is precisely the substance of Beethoven’s late style.

The source of the nickname “Hammerklavier” is not particularly instructive. During a period when strong patriotic fervor burned within him, Beethoven sought a German word to replace the Italian name of the instrument (“pianoforte”) for which he was composing. He had included the term “Hammerklavier” on the title page of his Op. 101 sonata, and in January 1817 instructed his publishers (with mock seriousness) that “henceforth all our works that have German titles are to have Hammerklavier instead of pianoforte.” The Op. 106 sonata was merely the first to bear the designation, “Sonata fur das Hammerklavier,” hence the nickname.  It’s a common misconception that Beethoven gave this title to indicate he intended the sonata to be played exclusively on the piano

This sonata begins with a dramatic first-movement Allegro, where hard, driving energy goes hand-in-hand with a lyrical melody. As in much of Beethoven’s music, it is the rhythmic quality of the theme, rather than its pitch content, that dictates its subsequent development and transformation. The lengthy development section blends into a recapitulation that also develops thematic material while diverting through numerous key areas, some of them only distantly related to the tonic (including a section in far-flung B-major). The recapitulation includes fugato passages that give a hint of the contrapuntal procedures used in the work’s finale, capped by an extended coda that nearly amounts to another development section entirely.

The brief Scherzo and Trio that follow present a fine example of the composer’s grim humor.  As Beethoven scholar Eric Blom observed, “It would be difficult to think of any movement that represents him more strikingly in his capricious playful mood, in which he is never far from sudden accesses of anger and rudeness.” The outer sections are dominated by the incessant repetitions of a single short motif. Despite the odd phrase lengths, there isa sense of regularity and balance that almost recalls the Classical minuet style. The contrasting Trio expresses the melody in octaves, shifting between hands. But just when it seems that Beethoven’s procedures are becoming a little too straightforward, he inserts a cheeky Presto tune of an entirely different character, which swells violently until it tumbles through five octaves and rushes back up a cadenza-like scale. The return of the scherzo only partially restores the temperamental balance.

The slow movement of the sonata is the longest Beethoven ever wrote for piano, but the listener’s patience is amply rewarded with arguably the most profound and elevated music in the entire piano repertoire. The first two notes of the movement, an upbeat to the theme proper, were added by Beethoven at the last minute, as the publisher was preparing to print, and is one of the composer’s most famous afterthoughts. The expansive theme of nearly twenty-five measures, in a slow 6/8, gives the illusion of music unfolding on a cosmic scale. Again, the vastness of the material hides the architecture of the movement, which follows a conventional sonata form. The central section, though formally a development section, is more of a cadenza-like bridge to the reprise, which embroiders new figurations around the re-statement of themes.  

In order to pass convincingly from the contemplative slow movement into a Finale (and to smooth over the retransition from F-sharp minor to B-flat major), Beethoven inserts a slow introduction in the style of a free fantasy, with sudden changes of tempo and thematic material.  It isn’t surprising that this improvisatory passage recalls Bach, as Beethoven then proceeds to a fugal finale comparable in scope to his Große Fuge, Op. 133. Here Beethoven adheres for the most part to the rules of Baroque fugue composition, but this is no mere academic exercise, as it reaches levels of profundity and grandeur that many Baroque masters would have envied. He employs many of the stock devices of contrapuntal writing: inversions, augmentations, crab canons, and a fugue within a fugue. The trill figure of the fugue’s subject and the wide melodic leap within help the listener keep track of the theme amid these various treatments. This movement in particular presents a challenge to the performer, requiring a monumental technical effort to keep the texture clear without detracting from the necessary fullness of tone. But as Beethoven himself remarked, “what is difficult is also beautiful.”

—Luke Howard, © 2017

Program Subject to Change Without Notice

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