Skip to main content

REVIEW: Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard focuses on fantasias

San Diego Union-Tribune

Christian Hertzog

February 27, 2023

There have been few piano recitals this season so thoughtfully curated as the one that Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave in Baker-Baum Concert Hall for the La Jolla Music Society on Sunday evening.

The two-hour program examined fantasias. A fantasia has no predefined structure. There’s no guarantee that a catchy melody you hear in the opening measures will ever come back again.

Classical music thrives on departure from a theme and return to it. The unpredictability of an evening of fantasias could have been challenging, but Aimard’s technical mastery and inspired musicality produced a gratifying concert revealing surprise after surprise.

Anchored by four fantasias by Mozart, the program included examples by Jan Sweelinck, C.P.E. Bach, and Beethoven. Each half ended with an unfamiliar 20thcentury work — “Musica Stricta” by Andrei Volkonsky for the first, the “Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm” by George Benjamin for the second.

A request for no applause between pieces on each half created two chimerical compositions, each glued together at times by pitch connections between the individual works. Mozart’s Fantasia No. 3 in D minor, K.397 ended with a loud D major chord. Sweelinck’s “Fantasia Chromatica” immediately followed, opening with a softly repeated D, as if an echo of Mozart’s final chord.

Following Sweelinck, Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, K.475 began with wandering, ambiguous harmonies that first coalesced into a recognizable tune in D major. Mozart’s forceful C minor ending led into a soft C that began Volkonsky’s remarkable “Musica Stricta : Fantasia Ricercata.”

I’ve never heard any Volkonsky (1933-2008) on an American concert. He was expelled from the Moscow Conservatory for possessing scores by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Rather than discourage Volkonsky, in 1956 he wrote ”Musica Stricta,” the first known use of Schoenberg’s 12-tone composition method in the Soviet Union.

Its four short movements assume the overall shape of a sonata. The pointillistic third movement, “Lento rubato,” resembles the disjunct, stop-and-start avant-garde music heard at Darmstadt a few years earlier, an uncanny coincidence. Throughout, the tone row and its manipulations are repeated, invoking the Renaissance ricercata, a technique used by Sweelinck in his “Fantasia Chromatica.”

“Musica Stricta” was unperformed until 1961, but other works in the late 1950’s displayed Volkonsky’s allegiance to modernism. By 1964 infuriated musical apparatchiks effectively banned further performances of his compositions. Online recordings suggest a catalog of unique works worthy of programming, perhaps under the banner of “Degenerate Music.”

Normally Mozart’s one-page fragment of a Fantasia in F minor would be unfit for performance—it ends on a cliffhanging cadence. But opening the second half, it handily served as a lead-in to the rapid C major arpeggio that opened C.P.E. Bach’s Fantasia, H.284, a wild roller-coaster ride of a work. The C minor arpeggio that began Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor called back nicely to Bach’s gesture.

Some believe that Beethoven’s rarely heard Fantasia, Opus 77 is the closest that modern listeners can come to hearing him improvise, a talent in which he was unsurpassed for his time. Aimard ably carried us along through Beethoven’s twists and turns.

George Benjamin is best known these days for his operas, but last century he was primarily an instrumental composer. His “Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm” was his first work to break away from his early infatuation with spectral composition. He took the general idea of short-long rhythms and crafted a 13-minute-long piece notable for craggy counterpoint and suggestions of tonal harmonies in an otherwise atonal context.

It was a fitting end to an evening of mercurial music and connections across centuries. Throughout it all Aimard’s technique and musical insights excellently illuminated a fascinating, unforgettable concert.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.