Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s remarkable recital at the QEH connects musical threads across centuries

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various, Piano Fantasies: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 8.4.2023. (CC)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard © Lars Krabbe

Sweelinck – Fantasia in Echo style in dorian and D minor, SwWV 261 (1617 or before)
Mozart – Fantasia in D minor, K 397 (1782); Fantasia in F minor, K. Anh. 32 (fragment, 1789)
Carter – Night Fantasies (1980)
ChopinPolonaise-Fantaisie in A flat, Op.61 (1846)
C. P. E. Bach – Fantasia in C, Wq 59/6, H 284 (1784)
Beethoven – Fantasia in G minor, Op.77 (1810)
Benjamin – Three Studies: Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm (1985)

Recitals by Pierre-Laurent Aimard are never going to be less than fascinating. His quick mind and questing spirit sees to that. There was an extra surprise here, though – not one, but three grand pianos on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall as we entered: a Bösendorfer (which Aimard used for the classical pieces), a Steinway and a Yamaha. Aimard credited the Southbank’s senior piano technician Peter Salisbury as his ’duet partner’ in the recital. He chose the Yamaha for its purity, the Bösendorfer for its cantabile, and its warmth, and the Steinway for what he called its more ‘global’ sound. He also requested no applause between the pieces of each half, allowing for unbroken concentration throughout.

Fantasias of different eras drove the evening, from Sweelinck and CPE Bach through to Elliott Carter and George Benjamin. The Sweelinck echo fantasia is a wonderful work, beginning simply but soon ratcheting up the complexity. The bright Yamaha sound allowed for maximal clarity. In 2021, I saw Aimard perform Sweelinck (there, the Fantasia Chromatica) on the piano alongside György Kurtág (whose provided the encore in London) and music by Mark Andre. Aimard clearly has a deep resonance with Sweelinck’s deeply serious music – the sustaining pedal was used, and yet articulation was crystal clear, even through the gradual aggregation of ornamentation. Echo effects were telling; the slow unfolding of the Mozart D minor Fantasia’s opening (on the warmer Bösendorfer) seemed to come from another world. This is highly sectionalised music which includes a beautiful melody, heartbreakingly delivered by Aimard. A major key arrival served as a ray of light; elsewhere, Aimard’s grasp of Mozart’s voice-leading was beyond criticism. One rather puzzling aspect was that some chords did not end cleanly – something that only happened on the Bösendorfer during the course of the evening.

The most extended piece in the first half was Carter’s Night Fantasies. Aimard’s own recording of this is transfixing, and one of the finest in the catalogue (I profess an admiration for Pina Napoletano’s reading on Odradek, too, though, in whose hands this feels like an even greater piece). Aimard’s live performance, once more seeking the transparency of the Yamaha, was transportive, flurries of notes, nightmarish flights of fancy. The bass of the Yamaha did seem to lack the definition of its Steinway brother, though, something I would have welcomed in this piece; some middle-range sforzati came across as a touch blunted, too. Yet how one admired Aimard’s finger strength in the extended toccata section.

Hearing a Steinway was a bit like coming home, so seemingly omnipresent are they these days. Aimard’s choice of one of Chopin’s most elusive pieces, the Polonaise-Fantaisie, was inspired. As was his performance, easily the most convincing I have ever heard. Ghosts of a polonaise rhythm haunt the score. The work’s opening immediately made sense within the context of Aimard’s programme; and how well the semiquaver, fanfare-like octave anacruses spoke. There was a superb sense of unfolding, of opening out from a secret space. Clarity, so important and yet often so little valued in Chopin, was paramount for Aimard including a spectacularly wonderful bass trill near the close). Incredible playing.

It was a two-minute Mozart fragment that opened the second half (K Anh 32 in F minor – ‘Anhang’ means appendix). The piece is a little imperfect miracle, and Aimard captured the special nature of the cantabile, inspired melody to perfection. Perhaps the dissonances seemed blunted on the Bösendorfer; but how effective was the work’s close on a semi-colon, leading to CPE Bach on the Yamaha. This was the C major Fantasia, W1 59/6, bright, witty (and very even in the toccata passages). But the way Aimard despatched the opening, a spread ascent followed by a cheeky response, was utterly delightful. Ornaments were as crisp as could be. But it was, for this reviewer, the presence of the Beethoven G minor Fantasia that was the greatest cause for celebration. It is a magnificent, woefully underperformed and underappreciated work, and I for one would have come for this alone. The chordal passages were the finest I have ever heard under Aimard’s fingers. He seemed to tell us the tale of a taming of the opening’s descending scale over the course of the piece, counterpointed by the work’s inherently sectional structure. The end was pure fun.

No missing Aimard’s resonance with the music of George Benjamin, either, in his performance of the Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm (1985 – the work’s first performance was in this very hall in February 1986, by the composer himself). Aimard chose the Steinway for this, a perfect choice given the instrument’s fine treble resonance, so necessary in this piece. There was no missing the gestural nature of Benjamin’s writing (more highlighted here, perhaps, than in the composer’s own Nimbus recording). That treble absolutely sparkled; and how well Aimard differentiated legato right-hand chords against staccato, single line, jumpy left-hand lines. How well the low register of the Steinway rang out in accent; a brilliant performance of a fine piece that riffs on the iambic (short-long) rhythm at length.

The encore was Kurtág’s spellbinding Hommage a Berenyi Ferenc (1973). Aimard told us he had not decided which piano to play it on as he introduced the piece – he opted for the Steinway, the perfect choice for this rarefied music, full of question marks. It was interesting how one heard shadows of the works earlier in the programme in the Kurtág: a toccata passage that could have escaped from CPE Bach and transmogrified itself; perhaps the very opening is, in intent, close to the Chopin we heard, just in a more modernist language? A repeated note was like a tolling bell; a descending scale gesture recalled the Beethoven. An utterly remarkable, inspired choice, and performed just as brilliantly as the rest of the programme. If only all piano recitals showed this level of commitment to ideas, to the music of our time, to connecting threads across centuries.

Colin Clarke

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