Archive for December, 2010

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Pierre Laurent-AimardWhen he smiles, Pierre-Laurent Aimard bears a striking resemblance to a younger, more hirsute Alfred Brendel. They make an odd couple; I have not heard Brendel play any music later than Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, whereas Aimard made his reputation playing the music of living composers, such as Messiaen, Ligeti, and Boulez. Nevertheless, I gather they are friends who share a delight in absurdist humor. They have performed together, Brendel reciting his own dryly ironic poetry with Aimard as his manic piano-playing alter ego. In the one excerpt I have seen, Aimard performs a series of Beethovenian trills that gradually evaporate into nothing, like the Cheshire Cat, his fingers still vibrating silently in the air.

This sense of humor was evident in the second encore of Aimard’s Chicago recital yesterday, a (nearly) one note study by Ligeti. The single note (with octave doubling) is played with increasing rhythmic complexity building up to climactic pause, followed by the one appearance of a new note. Coincidentally, I heard Paul Lewis play this same piece a year ago probably with greater rhythmic discipline than Aimard. But he missed the sense of desperation that Aimard conveyed, as if he were panicked by being trapped in this one-dimensional universe. After the preceding frenzy, he played the final note with superb comic timing, almost casually, as if to say, “I’ve broken free now – so what!” The audience erupted into laughter, as Ligeti surely intended.

Although all of his encores were of contemporary composers (Kurtag, Ligeti, Carter, and Benjamin), the rest of the recital was more conventional, if an entire first half devoted to Messiaen’s early preludes could be considered conventional. This is contemplative music, haunted, according to Aimard, by the recent death of Messiaen’s mother. The sonorities are ravishing, clearly showing the harmonic influence of Debussy, but prefiguring Messiaen’s later style with right-hand chordal splashes of almost cloying sweetness. No birdsong though. It made for a rather static first half, with only the final piece showing some of the rhythmic energy that became an important component of Messiaen’s mature works.

The second half consisted of Chopin and Ravel. I was surprised at how conventional Aimard’s performances of the Chopin Barcarolle and second Scherzo were. I might have expected new insights when these quintessentially romantic pieces were seen through the prism of a contemporary music specialist, but Aimard played them sympathetically but straight. He became visibly more animated in the Ravel, giving a hyper-kinetic portrayal of the butterflies in the first of the Miroirs, revelling in the fragmented textures. The birdsong in the Oiseaux Tristes was rather angular for my taste, more inspired by Messiaen’s catalogues rather than Schumann’s haunting prophet bird, surely a more appropriate model. But the Barque sur l’Océan was remarkably serene in conception, allowing the bell motifs to ring clearly above the flood of arpeggios. I have heard the Alborada performed with more rhythmic swagger but seldom with faster repeated notes, before Ravel’s Cloches brought the concert to a hushed close.

Apart from the encores. I couldn’t hear Aimard’s introduction to his first encore, which was truly mesmerizing, but I gather it was by Kurtag, one of the many composers to consider him their ideal interpreter. In the post-concert reception, he told of being kidnapped by Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s wife. She rescued him from a rather dull teacher in the Paris Conservatoire, one of many chance encounters that shaped a remarkable career. He is clearly a very thoughtful musician, whether in traditional or contemporary repertoire, but I can’t help feeling that his imagination only really takes flight when he is in creative partnership with a living composer.


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