At first sight this was a disparate programme. Brahms and Messiaen do not immediately strike one as natural concert companions. The composers and works in this programme seemed to have nothing whatsoever in common: Brahms teems with polyphony and darkness while Messiaen is about light, timbre, vertical chords, vibrant colour – indeed Messiaen hated Brahms, declaring that “it’s always raining” in Brahms’ music.

Tamara Stefanovich © Marco Borggreve
Tamara Stefanovich
© Marco Borggreve

But unlikely or daring juxtapositions can create interesting and unexpected contrasts and connections, as one work shines a new light on another, enriching both listener and performer’s experience – and this was certainly my take on this remarkable concert by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich at St John’s Smith Square.

If there are connections to be made between the music that made up this large-scale programme it is that both works are mighty musical edifices, two great mountains which transcend mere notes on the page and which demonstrate each composer’s wish to remain in long moments of emotional distress, relaxation or ecstasy. Both works also display a high level of perfectionism in their structures and organisation, replete with many details, motifs and musical pathways which could easily become blurred in a lesser performance.

The Sonata in F minor for two pianos was originally cast as a string quintet, then as the two-piano sonata, and finally, urged by Clara Schumann, recast as the Piano Quintet, Op.34, its most familiar form. If one was looking for string textures in this two-piano version, they were replaced by opulent orchestral polyphony, particularly in the first and final movements where both performers sought to explore not the melding of sounds in each piano part, but rather the tensions between them. This, for me, created an unexpected lightness and clarity, often overlooked in performances of Brahms’ piano music. His colour scheme may be as dark as mahogany, his palette as rich as Sachertorte, but Aimard and Stefanovich’s sensitive virtuosity revealed the works ambiguous harmonies, melodies, rhythms and the overall narrative which was satisfying but never cloying.

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

The slow movement, which unfolds in the manner of a chorale or gentle folksong, was Schubertian in its serenity tinged with darkness and impending intensity, while the Scherzo was a rambunctious march. The finale opened with an unsettling yet simple rising melody, which recalled a Baroque recitative while also looking to Schoenberg in its loose tonality, before an explosion of ideas: lush ambiguous harmonies, marching rhythms and complex counterpoint, all handled with powerful drama and a keen sense of onward propulsion to create a finale of seemingly impossible virtuosity.

Messiaen’s Visions de l'amen, a seven-movement contemplation, was premiered in Paris in May 1943 by Messiaen himself, recently released from a German prisoner of war camp, and his student and future wife, Yvonne Loriod. The work was written for her, inspired by her “transcendent virtuosity” and the first piano part (played by Stefanovich) has all the rhythmic difficulties, Messiaen’s distinctive modes, his colourful stacked chords, and sparkling musical jewellery (motifs and melodic fragments, birdsong and chiming bells). The second piano part (Aimard) reflects the composer’s skills as an organist: it provides bold structures and deep sonorities.

If Brahms is mahogany, then Messiaen is bright shafts of vivid light and colour, rhythms which are almost naïve in their joyfulness, and ecstatic outpourings which dance breathlessly across the entire compass of the piano. The work represents “joy in the face of desolation” (George Benjamin), hope in dark times (it was premiered while Paris was still under Nazi occupation) and alongside its reflection of the composer’s profound Catholic faith, it is his personal celebration of love. In Loriod Messiaen had met the love of his life and this is why he wrote Visions de l”Amen.

The work feels rather like a gloriously decorated altarpiece in its organisation. Two triptychs (movements 1-3 and 5-7) frame a central panel, Amen de désir, the longest movement which is a sensuous, almost erotic declaration of love which unfurls in a vast ecstatic solo for the second pianist. After the vast edifice of the Brahms, the Messiaen felt fluid, expansive, highly expressive, both pianists fully at ease in this complex music. The final movement was an extraordinary confirmation of love, hope and faith, with glorious peals of bells and joyous, life-affirming rhythms. This was a breath-taking performance of both profound musical and personal faith and love, and an extraordinary display of bravura pianism.