Aimard Approaches Debussy from Another Side

United StatesUnited States Debussy, Holliger, Schumann: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Carnegie Hall, New York, 15.11.2012 (SSM)

Claude Debussy: Préludes, Book II
Heinz Holliger: Elis (Three Night Pieces)
Robert Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

The core education and training of most musicians is based on a repertory that starts in the 17th or 18th centuries and continues through the years, trailing off to a considerably smaller body of works from the 20th and 21st centuries. Most soloists’ suitcases are filled with music from Bach through Ravel, but over the years they may pick up “modern” pieces, often works that have been written for them or which they feel obliged to tackle. Evgeny Kissin rarely goes beyond the standard repertory except for Prokofiev and Scriabin and, more recently, Samuel Barber. The same could be said of Martha Argerich who occasionally will play something by Lutoslawski.

A contemporary pianist would come naturally to a composer such as Debussy from his emersion in music of the 19th century: Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms. The expectation is that the pianist’s interpretation would be a continuation of the grand tradition. If the pianist had a choice of playing the first book or the second book of Préludes, the first would be considered more accessible.

But what would this music sound like if the pianist approached it from the opposite side of music history? What if he were a student of Yvonne Loriot and Pierre Boulez? What if his repertory up until recently consisted of works by György Ligeti, George Benjamin and Elliott Carter (whose final work was written for the pianist)? What if at the age of 16 he won first prize in the Messiaen Competition?

It should be said before anything else that Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s performance on Thursday evening was exquisite, both immaculate and flawless. He played without a score (except in the short work by Holliger), and seemed to think though and analyze every note. There was nothing dreamy, lulling or insubstantial about the Debussy, no hazy poem filled with accolades to the moonlight. This was radical music in its day, and Aimard played it seriously. It would seem he sees something almost sacred in Debussy. This was particularly true in his performance of the 7th prelude, “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune.” With the amount of time given to the gaps before and after this prelude and the attention to every note, Aimard gave it the color and feel of one of the “régards” from Messiaen’s “Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus .

Sitting down to play the Debussy, Aimard waited for what seemed like several minutes before raising his hands to the keyboard. For an encore, which it took the audience several minutes to convince him to play, he performed a short work by Elliott Carter, “Fratribute,” from his Tri-Tribute. Aimard referred to it on-stage as an “Homage à Carter”: quite a lovely work. After the final note he lifted his hands and froze for what seemed forever before letting the confounded audience applaud. After the final note of the Debussy, some members of the audience shouted and applauded inappropriately, before he even had a chance to lift his hands from the keyboard.

His serious approach to the préludes unfortunately left the humor out of some of the pieces whose titles or score markings clearly indicate Debussy intended them to be playful. I’m not sure how Debussy expected a passage marked “ironique” to sound but Aimard passed this by. Debussy’s 6th prelude, “‘General Lavine-eccentric,'” is to be played in the style of a cakewalk but it needed a little more eccentricity, as did the parody “God Save the King/Queen” in the 9th prelude, “Hommage à S. Pickwick, Esq. PPM. PC.”

Aimard, intentionally or not, gave the audience no chance to applaud before beginning Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes. Considering that the last note of Holliger’s Elis (Three Night Pieces) requires the pianist to reach into the piano to pluck a string, it would have been inappropriate to applaud his derrière. By the time he got back to his chair, it was too late to acknowledge his interpretation of this delightful Webernian miniature.

It was only after Aimard finished playing Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes (including the five posthumous etudes) and stood up to accept the audience’s applause that one realized how much energy, both physical and mental, it took to perform these difficult variations. Aimard looked pale and drained, although this did not show during his execution. Some of Schumann’s later etudes require tremendous stamina. One movement is marked “Presto possibile” and Aimard took this to heart. The final “Allegro brillante” could have stood alone in its Lisztian virtuosity.

“Brilliant” would be the apt word to describe this entire recital.

Stan Metzger