The Modern Piano Concerto: How Do You Beat it?

This last week I’ve been repeatedly listening to a playlist of two wildly disparate works: Aribert Reimann’s Konzert für Klavier und 19 Spieler and Thomas Adès’s In Seven Days.

Reimann, who will be 80 next March, has always had a bigger career in Europe than America. For a high-modernist, he has written unusually durable works for voice: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a champion of his opera Lear, and the Wergo recording of Neun Sonette der Louïze Labé with Liat Himmelheber and Axel Bauni is a personal desert island disc.

Probably one reason singers are a fit for Reimann’s aesthetic is that his rhythms are usually not precisely notated. You don’t have to sit there with a calculator and try to get the scansion right. You just declaim.

This rhythmic freedom can be true of his mature instrumental music as well. The conductor doesn’t usually beat conventional time, he mostly cues events as celluar melodies offset by ornate decoration transfer from one chamber collection to the next. (Even if the conductor does have some normal time to beat for one group, another group will be “on their own.”) The result is refreshing and exciting. In a way it is closer to passionate stream-of-consciousness free jazz than most formally notated fierce atonal music with complex rhythms. Indeed, at various points the piano interacts with drums, horns, and even pizzicato bass in a way strikingly reminiscent of, say, the ICP Orchestra.

Reimann is an excellent pianist who can play his own music (another reason why I like him), although in the in Konzert für Klavier und 19 Spieler the keyboard duties are handled by Klaus Billing with the Basler Solisten-Ensemble conducted by Francis Travis. The piece is just 20 minutes with an obvious narrative. To me it is simply a classic work.

The Wergo LP has never had an official digital issue. For a while my LP was appreciating in value, but no longer as there are various rips online, including on YouTube.

Although Adès is also a rigorous modernist who can play his own works on the piano, the rhythmic organization of In Seven Days couldn’t be more different.

I’ve been listening to the issued version with Nicolas Hodges on piano, but again there’s a version on YouTube with Rolf Hind. In both cases the composer conducts. Reid Anderson pointed out to me that Adès has an ear monitor. Of course! How else could he keep the orchestra perfectly on track with the video by Tal Rosner, which maps the music exactly?

Huw Belling has publishing online an exceptionally valuable analysis, “Thinking Irrational: Thomas Adès and New Rhythms.” A few paragraphs on In Seven Days are illuminating, along with an example of the score. It turns out that the metronome mark is 77, which is a tempo nobody could beat exactly unless they had it fed from a computer. (Pre-digital metronomes would have given you 72 or 78, but not 77.) All the meters are 7s. There are seven movements. The work eventually stops abruptly – Ligeti’s familiar marking “As though torn off” is relevant – and I’d bet anything that the end point was decided for some mathematical reason containing sevens, like for example that the half hour of music is 7777 bars (or 77 x 77 bars) or some such.

At any rate, this is really quite a feat, to get an orchestra to follow a conductor so precisely, although I would think key players would need ear monitors as well. I wonder if they are listening to a click track or a mock-up of the work. Whatever they are doing, the end result is spectacular. All of Adès conjures chain suspensions somewhere in the score, and In Seven Days is a real feast of constant almost resolution, this time heard though the scrim of minimalism, although with more sophisticated harmonic control than most post-minimalist composers.  I like Rosner’s video as well; the official release comes with a DVD.

Those interested in Adès should really spend some time with Belling’s essay. I knew Adès’s rhythms could be complex but I’m quite taken aback at how brutally non-standard and non-intuitive the notation has gotten. It’s one thing to hand impossibilities to the Arditti Quartet but really quite another to expect a full orchestra to go along with this level of unfamiliar. The fact that orchestras do go along is a testament to the general acceptance of Adès being one of the great composers of our era.