Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall: Simply Outstanding

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Liszt, Bartok, Marco Stroppa, Ravel, Messiaen: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano),  Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 8.11.2011 (RB)

Liszt: Années de pèlerinage, Book 3 – Aux cypress de la Villa ‘D’Este: Thrénodie
Four Dirges, Op 9 – No. 4 ‘Nénie’
Légende No. 1, St François d’Assise’
Marco Stroppa:
Miniature estrose – Tangata manu
Années de pèlerinage, Book 3 – Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este
Jeux d’eau
Catalogue d’oiseaux – Le Traquet stapazin
Années de pèlerinage, Book 1 – Vallée d’Obermann

This was a brilliant recital from start to finish.  Pierre-Laurent Aimard played for more than 90 minutes without an interval, and asked the audience to refrain from applause until the very end of the programme.  Aimard had the music in front of him throughout and used a page turner which, given the extreme technical difficulty of some of the music, is not all that surprising.  The programme was highly interesting with Aimard juxtaposing harmonically and thematically innovative pieces by Liszt with pieces by 20th Century composers.  The various pieces explored various phenomena in the natural world (landscape, birds, water) and examined them through religious and atheist prisms.  Aimard also looked at how piano writing evolved from the 19th to the 20th centuries so the recital was a highly cerebral and thought provoking experience.

The first piece by Liszt depicts the famous Cyprus trees at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli where Liszt was staying at the invitation of Cardinal Hohenlohe.  Liszt explores interesting harmonic ambiguities and progressions in the work.  Aimard’s shading and colouring in catching the various half-lights in the piece was impressive, and the floating melody emerged in a seamless and organic way from the rocking accompaniment.  This piece was juxtaposed with the first of Bartok’s four dirges which takes the exploration of harmonic progressions even further.  Aimard used a range of textures and dynamics to illuminate this somewhat opaque work and made it sound engaging and interesting.

The Liszt Légende is a highly virtuosic work that explores bird song, the religious significance of St Francis preaching to the birds and his celebration of the natural world.  Aimard’s handling of the rapid and intricate passage work was exceptionally fine and delicate, and he evoked very ethereal and translucent sounds from the piano.  Marco Stroppa’s Tangata manu was written in 1995 and is a homage to Berio.  It depicts an Easter Island myth and looks at various aspects of flying.  I have not seen the score but it sounds fiendishly difficult and it is an absolutely glorious piece, particularly when one hears it performed like this.  Aimard created a compelling narrative from the fragmentary and abstruse material and engaged the audience through the use of an extraordinary range of sonic and musical effects.  This was a technical and imaginative tour de force.

Liszt’s depiction of the water fountains at the Villa D’Este, one of the more famous pieces on the programme, was famously described by Busoni as “the model for all musical fountains that have flowed ever since”.  The Chilean pianist, Claudio Arrau, loved this piece and left two recordings.  Aimard’s handling of the opening figurations showed extraordinary flexibility and dexterity and the demisemiquavers depicting the water fountains were magical.  Aimard created a wonderful range of carefully calibrated sonorities and the ornamentation was exceptionally beautiful.  He was not able to obtain the same level of tonal sheen or beauty as Arrau but it was a first class performance nonetheless.  The fountains of the Villa d’Este were juxtaposed with Ravel’s Jeux d’eau where Aimard navigated the technical difficulties with ease.  He emphasised the sense of play and delicacy and stayed faithful to Ravel’s precise markings in the score.

Aimard studied with Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s second wife, and he is justly famous for his interpretations of Messiaen.  Le traquet stapazin (from Catalogue d’oiseaux) refers specifically to the Black-eared Wheatear but in the work Messiaen depicts a wide range of bird song within an idyllic rural scene.  Aimard’s handling of the bird song seemed playful and free while remaining faithful to Messiaen’s highly intricate rhythms.  He used jagged dissonant chords to depict landscape and conjured a luminous tone from the piano to convey Messiaen’s religious and mystical sensibilities.  Again this was absolutely wonderful playing.  The final piece of the evening was Vallée d’Obermann from Book 1 of Années de pèlerinage.  Aimard’s handling of the plaintive opening melody was highly sensuous, conveying subdued and suppressed emotion.  The only part of the evening which jarred for me was the stormy central section.  While Aimard managed to build up considerable velocity and excitement, his handling of this was a little too cerebral and it lacked emotional weight and power (compare Arrau’s wonderful recording of the work).

This was outstanding playing from one of the world’s greatest exponents of 20th Century and contemporary piano music.  Aimard has just brought out CDs of all the works played in this and his next QEH recital, and I for one will be buying them.


Robert Beattie