An Enthralling Exposition of Debussy’s Préludes by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

AustriaAustria  Debussy: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano). Mozart Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 11.12.2012 (MB)
Préludes (Books 1 and 2)

It is quite an undertaking to perform – and indeed to listen to – both books of Debussy Préludes in a single recital, but undoubtedly a rewarding one. Pierre-Laurent Aimard is certainly one of the very few musicians who would be equal to the task, at least in any sense more meaningful than simply despatching the notes. Clichéd reputations tend to die hard in the world of musical performance, but anyone expecting an overtly modernistic reading would have been surprised, at least had he listened rather than merely flattered his prejudices. True, this was no mere catalogue of hazy, allegedly ‘impressionistic’ effects, though who plays this music like that any more, if indeed anyone ever did? What struck me throughout – despite and indeed through the variety of perspectives Aimard adopted with respect to the preludes as small works in themselves – was the underlying crucial importance of harmony. Upon that, quite rightly, everything else was founded.

‘Danseuses de Delphes’ offered a nicely hieratic opening, not least with respect to voicing of its parallel chords, looking forward, though never didactically so, to Messiaen and Boulez. Form here and in the following ‘Voiles’ was admirably clear – at least insofar as it can be, given Debussy’s still shocking ambiguities. ‘Voiles’ was arguably more ‘atmospheric’ in a traditional sense, though that is partly a matter of the piece itself. ‘Le vent dans la plaine’ was taken attacca, performed with an apparent nonchalance that drew one in, made one listen. (I thought more than once of Nono.) The way the music simply stopped was perfectly judged; I could not help but think forward to Wozzeck. ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’ quietly grew and subsided in dramatic stature, albeit with a splendid lack of symmetry. Aimard’s withering glance at one deliverer of extra-decibel coughs ought to have shamed the perpetrator into leaving immediately; alas it seemed only to encourager les autres. (There was also a distressing electronic ringing sound sometimes to be heard.) The pianist captured beautifully the understated insistence of ‘Des pas sur la neige’, the strangeness of music at least apparently beyond tonality – airs of another planet? – was readily felt. In ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’, Debussy’s darkly Lisztian Satanism proved quite spellbinding, its harmonic roots – if the deliberate inappropriateness of the word may be forgiven – in late Liszt more than usually apparent. Ghosts of Mephisto revealed themselves and demanded that we follow them. This piece also had the structural merit, in terms of the first book as a whole, of having one realise how much those tendencies had been present all along in the first half of that book: retrospective appreciation. Fine ‘hammerless’ playing was to be heard in ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’, whilst the first piece’s hieratic quality made itself wonderfully apparent once again in ‘La cathédrale engloutie’. Excellently-judged eccentricity of rhythm, a little rubato included, underlay the closing ‘Minstrels’.

The second book opened with a will-o’-the-wispy ‘Brouillards’, which yet maintained a proper sense of direction. Temperatures rose, without over-heating, in ‘Feuilles mortes’. A relatively slow tempo in ‘La puerta del vino’ emphasised its Hispanic hauteur, poised somewhere between ‘French’ Spain and the ‘Spanish’ version thereof. Subtle shading within phrases was telling. ‘General Lavine – excentric’ offered a reminiscence and extension of ‘Minstrels’, that eccentricity of rhythm again to the fore. Directional languor, as it were, characterised ‘La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune’: goal-oriented, yet sometimes swimming against the tide of something mysterious, ineffable. It was definitely – and indeed indefinitely – anti-Beethovenian. Again, Liszt was very much a guiding or at least inspiring presence in ‘Ondine’.  ‘Hommage à Samuel Pickwick Esq.’ conveyed a sense of pushing harmony to its limits: not yet non-functional, indeed deeply functional in its way, yet not so far off either.  ‘Canope’ offered a further perspective on the qualities of the very first piece to be heard that evening, ‘Danseuses de Delphes’, now refracted through a more complex lens, situated in a more variegated landscape. There was an appealing abstraction to ‘Les tierces alternées’, which nevertheless more than once seemed to evoke Schoenbergian expressionism. In one sense, ‘Feux d’artifice’ was as pictorial as anyone could wish for, almost brutally so. Yet it was also much deeper than that, drawing on so much of what had gone before, especially in harmonic terms, its equivocation penetrating to what one might paradoxically consider the vague core of Debussy’s music.


Mark Berry