In around 1822, an eleven-year-old Franz Liszt performed for Beethoven. It’s claimed that Beethoven gave him his blessing and kissed him on the forehead. A lifetime later, in 1885, Liszt wrote La lugubre gondola, a harsh, drastically dissonant piano piece commemorating the death of Wagner.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, © Marco Borggreve
Pierre-Laurent Aimard,
© Marco Borggreve

It’s easy to forget how short the nineteenth century was. And it’s equally easy to forget how early the twentieth started. Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s beautifully programmed recital this Wednesday placed Liszt at the centre of a swirling nexus of late-romantic piano works, forcing us to hear Liszt – and various others before and since – in another light.

Aimard’s tactic in the first half was to alternate short, late piano works by Liszt with one-movement sonatas by Wagner, Berg and Scriabin, barely pausing between the pieces. While the piano sonatas moved forwards through history – from Wagner’s A flat Sonata of 1853, through Berg’s Op. 1 of 1907-8, to Scriabin’s 1912/13 Black Mass – the Liszt works actually moved back in time slightly, beginning with La lugubre gondola and ending with Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, from around 1880. Without the programme notes, though, one could not have guessed this, as the Liszt works all had an eminently modern, even futuristic sheen, enhanced in performance by Aimard’s sincere, precise delivery.

The journey backwards through Liszt’s career was completed in the second half, which consisted of his 1853 Piano Sonata in B minor. Though a truly mad work in real terms, its placement as the climax of a concert of such demented modernism made it seem like an ode to a forgotten sanity. Liszt’s willingness here to engage with the rosy elegance of conventional late romanticism, in the more lyrical passages at least, gave it an unexpectedly traditional air – although of course its passages of theatrical violence, zealously realised by Aimard, were as startling as ever. The mixture of extremism and elegance was a welcome reminder of the scope of romanticism, and of Liszt’s surprisingly pioneering role in traversing this range.

Aimard’s thesis of Liszt as pioneer was perhaps emphasised most starkly by the contrast with Wagner’s Sonata in A flat, ‘Für das Album von Frau MW’, composed in the same year as Liszt’s sonata but sounding almost prehistoric in comparison. The directness of the sonata’s broken chords contrasted almost amusingly with the subtle veiled fog of the Liszt works – and though by contrasting late Liszt to early-ish Wagner Aimard was playing a slight historical trick on us, we still had to wonder who the real revolutionary was.

The Wagner sonata was followed by Liszt’s almost mystic Nuages gris, whose unusual, dissonant, fourth-based chords formed a musically compelling link to Berg’s Sonata in B minor, Op. 1, which came next. I heard the link to Wagner here more through its dramatic directness than its harmony: the deliberate, self-conscious opacity of Berg’s chords here sounded like it came straight from Liszt.

All this historical polemic was enhanced by Aimard’s always clinical delivery. He presented the works with real authority and was clearly committed to the story he was telling. The influence of his long-term collaborator Pierre Boulez was perhaps apparent: like Boulez the conductor, his interpretation was precise and intricate, but always warm – and exactly as beautiful and impassioned as the music demands. In this concert he placed an emphasis on transparency: playing these bizarre Liszt works straight only brought out their strangeness more.

Aimard’s cleanness in delivery also had the effect of rendering Scriabin’s Sonata no. 9, ‘Black Mass’ sound almost tame – no mean feat, given its legendary wildness – and I did wonder if the force of Aimard’s programming was slightly misrepresenting the other composers featured. Berg, after all, surely owed as much to Brahms as either Wagner or Liszt, and putting in one of Brahms’s late Intermezzi (for example) would have offered a more balanced perspective on his sonata.

I would not, however, fault the concept of the recital. It was a delight to hear such an engaging and lucid programme, conceived with such keen awareness of history. All concerts such as this which focus exclusively on classical music’s past glories should take a leaf from Aimard’s book: tell a story, make it new.