Tuesday night at the Perelman Theater, by the time you reached the end of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata, you might have felt like you had really been through something. The piece gets thorny for a while, especially in the last movement, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard did a fine job of bringing order to it. But what did the pianist make you feel?
Aimard's recital for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society revealed a cool customer. He handled the fugal aspects of the sonata's last movement with clarity and logic, and with no small measure of beauty. And he did, in fact, uncover some genuinely expressive thoughts in the supremely beautiful third movement, an even more deeply searching stretch of music than the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth.
But if you went into the recital with Maurizio Pollini-level revelations as your expectation, Aimard might have left you feeling deflated. The French pianist sounded labored. Rather than unleashing poetry, he seemed to be explaining the music word for word. One supposes he could have deployed his technique to release those incredible moments of liberation, and yet he stayed mostly earthbound.
Was Aimard making the case for Beethoven as a dispassionate modernist? With a request not to applaud between works on the first half, Aimard created an essay on less-traditional takes on music language, from Franco-Russian original Nikolai Obukhov to Liszt and Messiaen, and then Scriabin.
We should be grateful for a rare encounter with Obukhov, represented here with his Révélation from 1915 and Création d'or from 1916. The pieces flattened the traditional harmonic hierarchy and clustered notes to a Kandinsky aesthetic. Liszt as an advanced thinker emerged in Nuages gris. From 1881, it was striking in this context as an early instance of the dissolution of traditional harmony, and Aimard brought out its vague beauties.
After an impressively virtuosic Liszt Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este, Aimard turned to the birds in Messiaen's Le Courlis cendré from the 1950s. The pianist was a master of evocation by way of technique, finding a toy-piano color at one point and avian violence at another.
Scriabin's Piano Sonata No. 5, a work that begs for the new word painbeauty to be added to the English language, was played with more technical wizardry than expressivity.
The encore was a triptych from Kurtág's Games, largely a slow stream of single notes struck at various distances from one another in time and space. After the thicket of the "Hammerklavier," this sparseness had the cold effect of an astringent. It wasn't quite what the ear wanted to hear as an encore and reinforced a feeling for Aimard as a pianist who likes revolutions but prefers them bloodless.