CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 4 FEBRUARY 2010
Olivier Messiaen: L'Ascension. Maurice Ravel: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G major; Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Claude Debussy: "Ibéria," from Images. (Pierre Laurent-Aimard, p.; Pierre Boulez, cond.)
Sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska...composer George Butterworth...poet Wilfred Owen... The First World War cost the early twentieth-century many of its brightest young talents. But when pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm to a Russian sniper's bullet, he was determined that his musical career would not be one of the War's casualties. While he was still a P.O.W., Wittgenstein took a piece of charcoal, drew a piano keyboard on an crate, and worked out one-handed arrangements by tapping on the empty box. In succeeding decades, Wittgenstein commissioned left-hand piano works by the likes of Britten, Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss. And if you head to Severance Hall over the next few days, you'll have a chance to hear the most famous of Wittgenstein's showpieces: the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand.
This weekend's left hand belongs to Pierre Laurent-Aimard, who established his Ravelian credentials five years ago with a gripping recording of Gaspard de la nuit. He essays both the left-hand concerto and Ravel's two-handed Concerto in G in tandem with conductor Pierre Boulez, whose recording of this music with Krystian Zimerman is one of the gems of the catalogue.
If Thursday's concert is any indication, the Deutsche Grammophon CD to be distilled from this weekend's performances might also turn out to be a classic. Aimard's articulate, intelligent playing—full of beguiling colors and thoughtfully rendered detail—is perfectly suited to Ravel's sound world. There's plenty to distinguish Aimard's approach from Zimerman's: Aimard's somewhat more ruminative treatment of the Più lento section six minutes into the left-hand concerto, for example, or his subtler shaping of its Allegro's first theme. Aimard also seems to take a particular pleasure in Ravel's distinctive uses of timbre, making much of grumbling low notes in the same work's opening cadenza and in the G-major concerto's first movement. Whatever the details, however, Aimard, Zimerman, and Boulez all share a keen sense of this music's textures and proportions. The artistic success of the new CD will depend, in part, on how the music is re-assembled from three performances and from twenty-some microphones that protrude into the performing space like so many stalactites and stalagmites. But, experienced live, Boulez and Aimard's Ravel is altogether magical.
The reading of Messiaen's L'ascension which opened Thursday's concert did not begin auspiciously. The scrappy first movement made me wish I was listening instead to the crisp, ceremonial version of this music that Antoni Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony released a decade ago. But in the remaining three "meditations" Boulez offered a surprisingly warm treatment of Messiaen's composition that looked back to its roots in the work of Dukas and Debussy. Indeed, Boulez's decision to end the concert with his lucid and detailed rendition of the latter's Ibéria made for a nicely calculated program. What was it Debussy once said about music being a "mysterious mathematical process"? If that's so, you can feel pretty darn confident with Boulez as your accountant.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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