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November 15, 2005

Jean-Pierre Aimard displays virtuosity, superiority to Beck

Here is a prediction: Beck’s music will not age well. Why? And what does this have to do with Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s excellent piano recital last Sunday?

Beck works by ironically sampling the musical idioms of his age and blending them with his own breed of folk. Sea Change is orchestral folk. Odelay is folk-rap. Midnite Vultures is disco-folk. And within songs themselves, he often “quotes” styles well outside of the ones in which the song primarily works, like the banjo passage that appears out of nowhere in the Prince-style “Sexx Laws,” only to vanish again moments later.

This kind of music is exhilarating, if you are familiar with the various idioms. The idiosyncratic fusion of stylized elements into a shaky but entertaining whole guarantees more interest than the bland, predictable meandering of many pop bands doing their best to sound “original.”

But once the musical idioms that Beck draws upon have totally vanished into the past, will his music still speak to us? My guess is no. Even within his oeuvre, Midnite Vultures, made in the late ’90s but drawing on the styles of ’80s disco-pop, was less enthusiastically received than his work with the hip-hop- and sampling-oriented Dust Brothers. This is not to say his music is bad—on the contrary, it is often brilliant, and I think it’s important to recognize the possibility of great music that isn’t likely to speak far beyond its cultural milieu. This is exactly the feeling I get from one of Schumann’s early piano works, “Carnaval,” a set of “Vignettes on Four Notes,” as the composer subtitled it.

The four notes are drawn from the letters of the name of a loved one, but the theme Schumann derives from them is only loosely developed and referenced in the 21 movements of “Carnaval.” The piece as a whole does not seem to have been intended as a coherent set of variations, but rather—as suggested by the title—as a bazaar of impressions and sentiments. Aimard performed it as such, certainly. To my ears, it was done with a good deal of irony as well.

But precisely because this morass of romantic clichés and sentiments (with very little formal unity) belongs to such a different era, it utterly fails to move us. It is intended as a set of glimpses into the varieties of emotional and sentimental existence, and it makes its appeals directly through the styles of the time. There are dance movements, Chopin-esque movements, mournful ballad movements, fanfare movements, and all of this—if one were intimately familiar with styles and affects of the era—would in all likelihood appear “colorful, evocative, virtuosic, varied, melodious, daring, stirring,” as the incredibly banal program notes suggest.

But to my ears it sounded mannered, unoriginal, and dated in a way that truly original works of classical music do not. Debussy’s Preludes is just such a work, as is Ravel’s amazing suite, “Gaspard de la Nuit.” In his performance of each, Aimard showed an acutely restrained virtuosity, exactly what is called for by the impressionism of the two French composers. Both of them excelled at creating swelling textures and rippling sequences of thick, filled-in arpeggios, and to perform these passages well requires a technique that is emotive without being showy. Aimard displayed just this kind of control, especially during the first of the three movements of “Gaspard de la Nuit,” which he performed at a gentle, delicate volume—quite a feat, given the sheer density and velocity the piece requires.

For all the unevenness of the program, with Schumann and an awkward series of Kurtag pieces breaking up excellent music by Debussy and Ravel, Aimard is clearly an excellent pianist—sensitive while avoiding, for the most part, sentimentality. He was called back to stage four times by the usual gushing, uncritical, standing applause of the Symphony Hall audience, which gives everyone a standing ovation and instead expects an encore from every performer, no matter how mediocre. He definitely earned my respect when he refused to give an encore and waved to the audience the final time with an affable smile. The French, it seems, are still perfectly aware of what they do well, and they do not need to pander to Chicago Symphony types.