The Modern Piano Concerto: How Do You Beat it?

Two of my favorite modernist piano concertos couldn’t be more different: Aribert Reimann’s Konzert für Klavier und 19 Spieler and Thomas Adès’s In Seven Days.

Reimann has always had a bigger career in Europe than America, and might be best known for his opera Lear, championed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  Vocalists might like Reimann’s aesthetic because his rhythms are not always precisely notated. Performers don’t have to sit there with a calculator and try to get the scansion right, they can just declaim. (The Wergo recording of Neun Sonette der Louïze Labé with Liat Himmelheber and Axel Bauni is exceptional.)

This rhythmic freedom can be true of Reimann’s mature instrumental music as well. The conductor doesn’t usually beat conventional time. Instead, the conductor cues events, usually celluar melodies offset by ornate decoration. (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, and in a way closer to passionate stream-of-consciousness free jazz than most formally notated atonal music.

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 time my LP was appreciating in value, but no longer as there are various rips online, including on YouTube.

Although Thomas 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 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 offers a valuable analysis, “Thinking Irrational: Thomas Adès and New Rhythms.” A few paragraphs on In Seven Days are illuminating. 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.

Perhaps key players in the ensemble also need ear monitors for a click track or a mock-up of the work. Whatever the nuts and bolts, the end result is spectacular.  Chain suspensions were already a familar thumbprint of Adès, and In Seven Days is a real feast of constant near-resolution, this time heard though the scrim of minimalism.  I like Rosner’s video as well; the official release comes with a DVD.

Belling’s essay illuminates how brutally non-standard and non-intuitive the composer’s rhythmic notation has gotten. It’s one thing to hand impossibilities to a crack chamber group like the Arditti Quartet (with whom Adès performed a brilliant Piano Quintet) but really quite another to hand impossibilities to a full orchestra. The fact that orchestras do go along with the rhythmic mayhem is a testament to a general acceptance of Adès being one of the great composers of our era.