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Archive for April, 2013

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

When I first heard Pierre-Laurent Aimard perform at Chicago’s Symphony Center, he played with the music in front of him. This is pretty unusual at solo piano recitals nowadays. Clifford Curzon often needed the music to overcome his nerves, although he rarely looked up and the pages were so densely annotated that they must have been almost impossible to read anyway. I recently saw Kirill Gerstein play a new commission reading an iPad propped up on the music stand, but I can’t recall many other examples. Aimard claimed that playing from the music allowed him to be more flexible in his repertoire, tailoring the program for each audience. Of course, he flattered us by saying that he could be more adventurous in front of a sophisticated audience like ours and seemed rather disdainful of other pianists who took the same program all over the world. How boring.

He seems to have changed his mind. He played both of his last two recitals, including last week’s performance of all the Debussy Préludes, Books One and Two, from memory. A glance at his upcoming schedule of concerts shows an extremely eclectic mix, including a complete performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards that I would love to hear, so perhaps he doesn’t hold Chicago in such high esteem any more. Or perhaps it was a decision by his agents anxious to sell the CD he recorded last year or the Symphony Center management anxious to fill seats.

It’s a shame, because I don’t think his heart is in such conventional repertoire. The whole afternoon, I felt as if I were listening to a gifted sight-reader, someone attuned to the musical style but unable or unwilling to probe beneath the surface. This seemed most obvious in Des pas sur la neige, a desolate depiction of the solitude of winter. In the best performances (I consider the recording by Krystian Zimerman a benchmark), time seems to stand still between each weary step. Aimard played rather loudly and seemed more interested in exploring chordal dissonances than conveying any sense of numbed sadness. There were several other Préludes where Debussy calls for a rapt stillness that I felt Aimard completely missed. Of course, he has the technique to whip up a furious storm in Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest or light the touch paper in Feux d’artifice, although Les tierces alternées was distinctly pedestrian compared to Zimerman’s scintillating account on CD.

I was particularly surprised by La sérénade interrompue, in which Debussy portrayed a Spanish guitarist frustrated in his musical seduction by unspecified interruptions. I was looking forward to this because I have heard Aimard display a biting sense of humor in other music and imagined he would relish acting out the guitarist’s despair at each setback. However, he seemed uninterested in the narrative drama, gliding through each angry outburst with almost no change in dynamics. He was more successful in capturing the jaunty swagger of General Lavine and the pomposity of S. Pickwick Esq, but no more so than many other less distinguished pianists.

I find Aimard something of an enigma. I’ve heard interviews with him that have demonstrated a keen musical intelligence, he has devised imaginative programs juxtaposing disparate musical styles (for example, the Liszt Project), and he is capable of sardonic wit. He also has a strong technique, although I don’t think he can match the transcendental perfection of Zimerman or Kocsis in Debussy – but then, can they play Messiaen or Boulez like Aimard? But I have never found his Chicago recitals revelatory; there is a generalized quality to his playing that, while of a high standard, seems perfunctory and routine, at least in the standard repertoire. Perhaps he should spend less time memorizing the music and more time persuading concert management that Chicago is ready once more for challenging repertoire.

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