Beethoven the Avant-Gardist: A Pianist Makes His Case

If Beethoven has been everywhere in this year of his 250th birthday, innovative ways of presenting his music have not. Among the symphony cycles, string quartet surveys and re-enactments of his most famous concerts, few artists have asked us explicitly to rethink what Beethoven might mean for us today.

Beethoven the Avant-Gardist: A Pianist Makes His Case

Pierre-Laurent Aimard has done that — or was planning to. A restless intellect as incisive in Bach as he is intelligible in Boulez, the French pianist, 62, was scheduled to give recitals at the Celebrity Series of Boston and the 92nd Street Y in New York before the coronavirus outbreak intervened — recitals that would have put Beethoven in the context of other avant-gardists.

Crossing the centuries over two programs, Aimard intended to pair an early serialist work by Schoenberg, the Five Piano Pieces, with an early Beethoven experiment, the last of the Opus 10 sonatas, and to juxtapose the relentless “Appassionata” Sonata with the crushing repeated chords of Stockhausen’s “Klavierstück IX.” The Opus 101 sonata was to meet with the “Fantasia Chromatica” by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and a set of canonic preludes written by George Benjamin for Aimard in 2001; the penultimate Beethoven sonata would have followed Berg’s Piano Sonata, his Opus 1.

Speaking by phone from his home in Berlin, Aimard talked about the inspiration behind these programs, and why Beethoven still matters. These are edited excerpts.

Q: How are you asking the listener to think differently about Beethoven’s music through this kind of programming?

A: I’m looking for the perception that one could have of this music if one looks to the sense that it had originally. I’m trying to transpose it, so that we understand better what Beethoven meant.

He was a troublemaker. He belonged to a world in which everyone spoke a collective language, everybody used the same tools, but he used them so differently. He incarnates the revolutionary in the history of art. I love this dimension, maybe because I’m French and we have a certain history — one, by the way, that influenced Beethoven himself.

But how can you communicate it? I thought that choosing pieces where compositionally he is really disruptive, and trying to connect them with pieces by avant-gardists from other eras — where they try, maybe in the same compositional dimension or a similar one, to go forward — I thought that could be something that has some strength.

Q: Why these specific pieces?

A: At the end of his creative life, Beethoven is so independent, so personal, and we see that he is really between two eras, Classicism and Romanticism. He grasps models, patterns, but he transforms them completely.

What does he do, for instance, in his late piano sonatas? He transforms the sonata heritage — the emblem of the instrumental Viennese Classical style — by inoculating it with the big polyphonic tradition, coming from the Renaissance. He makes a hybrid between musics from different heritages, and gets an object that is completely different.

And the same thing with Berg. We are between post-Romanticism and Modernism, and Berg obviously mixes a Classical heritage with a late Romantic style. The whole piece emerges in a flow of hyper-polyphony, that gives to this so-called sonata the impression of an irresistible compact opera.

So we are at four — not equal moments, but similar moments in the history of music, and we have composers who are extremely knowledgeable, who mix different traditions, in order to get a richer, stranger, more complex compositional object.

Q: There are audible links between the finale of the “Appassionata” and the Stockhausen, but what other connections do you see?

A: In the case of the “Appassionata,” what’s amazing is how Beethoven composed completely new music, but with a triad, a traditional chord of three sounds. From the start, he presents it in all the registers, so it’s spatial music; but in order to be intelligible, to be understood as a good communicator, he uses the most simple possible material.

What does Stockhausen do in the 1950s, when one needed to construct a new world after the European self-destruction? He also incorporates space as a fundamental parameter in composition, but, in order to be understood, he uses very simple material, a repeated chord.

In both cases they are pioneers in composition, but they are music-makers who make it so that everybody can feel the gestures. So put the end of the Beethoven with the start of the Stockhausen, and don’t put a break between them, and everybody will feel it’s the same family of thinkers.

Q: Is there a particular way you try to play the Beethoven to bring out connections like these?

A: You always adapt your interpretation. Your interpretation is not something stuck, that you repeat forever. If you make a real program — as you can make a real exhibition, where you put together pieces of art that can enlighten each other — of course you will look at the pieces differently. It doesn’t mean that you are betraying yourself.

Q: Drawing attention to “Beethoven the avant-gardist” raises the question of whether there is still an avant-garde in composition. As someone so in touch with new music, is there?

A: There are cultural contexts and moments in our history that are favorable for the avant-garde, and of course, consequently, moments when that is not the case. After the Renaissance you had Mannerism; after the phenomenal avant-garde of the start of the 20th century, you had the ’20s and the ’30s; after the ’50s and the ’60s, you have eras like ours that have been more comfortable. But it would be too easy to say, yes, we are too commercial; we are a period of neo-this, neo-that; there is nothing at all said that is interesting in the arts. Of course this is not true. It is more interesting than that; the era is quite complex.

Q: If we can still move forward, then, can we ever escape Beethoven?

A: Our cultural background is rich enough that yes, we can escape him, and survive very well. It would be a pity, sometimes, but you know what I mean.

Q: So is the duty of the artist to show audiences what should be done differently?

A: Our world of classical music is so conservative, so asleep in the same routines — kept prisoner in the same models, led much too much by commercial considerations and not artistic considerations. Asking how can I make the best ticket sales, and then which content will I have, it’s like politicians who just think, how can I be elected?

But there are a lot of people who see their lives enriched by masterpieces, who see the stage not just for fashion and visual fun, but as an essential interrogation of society. So, let’s address ourselves to these people, and let’s give sense to our lives in common. We just have to find the way to communicate.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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