Musically, technically and physically, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata Op 106 and Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata present challenges that no pianist takes on lightly. Including either in a recital is a statement intent, but playing both in the same evening, as Pierre-Laurent Aimard did, is on another level altogether.
Yet juxtaposing them makes a lot sense, for these craggy, extreme works have much more in common than sheer scale and take-it-or-leave-it difficulty. Ives’s sonata takes its title from the Massachusetts town indelibly linked with American transcendentalism, its four movements named after writers – Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, Thoreau – who lived there, but it is just as indebted to Beethoven. Not only does it obsess on the opening motif from the Fifth Symphony, but references to the Hammerklavier are regularly woven into its tangled textures as well.
Aimard played the Beethoven first. Using the sustaining pedal sparingly, it was a performance unflinching, sometimes startling clarity, especially in the colossal fugue with which the sonata ends, but it was always more convincing on the tumult than the poetry. The huge Adagio (the longest slow movement Beethoven ever wrote) was never as poised and other-worldly as it can seem in some performances, and the final climax was more clangorous than consoling.
In the Concord Sonata it was the rare moments quiet calm, especially in the second-movement scherzo, that stood out most all. Aimard kept a cool, controlling head in even the work’s most extreme moments teeming, tumbling busyness; his tireless performance, without the parts for viola and flute in the outer movements that Ives added as options, seemed to link it with the great piano works that followed it in the 20th century, as much as it looked back to Beethoven’s example that inspired it.