Aimard’s Study-thon – Wigmore Hall (16 October)

Études – Book I, Nos. 1 & 3
Études – Book II, Nos. 7, 10, 11 & 12
Études – Book I
Études – Book III
Études – Book II

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 16 October, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This enterprising programme, part of the Wigmore Hall’s Master Series 1 (London Pianoforte Series) and greeted with a sizeable standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience, was characterised by the supreme technical virtuosity of Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the continuing, if not cumulative, crassness of a portion of the audience that broke the atmosphere with a barrage of noisy effects not scored be either composer.

At least the first interruption could not be blamed on that audience minority; it was Aimard himself who, after the second Debussy study, announced that he could hear a buzzing from the Steinway and he would like to call a technician. A small pantomime later with the tuner knocking on the wooden casing of the piano, resulted in no great change (“mystery is not only the preserve of the composition,” Aimard wryly commentated). On the occasional long-held note one could, indeed, detect a buzz. But it was nothing to the distracting mobile phone that rang four or five times during the penultimate Debussy study, its owner seemingly oblivious that it could belong to them. And this despite the big sign placed at the front of the platform before the recital and during the interval detailing a mobile phone partially obscured by a big red cross, let alone the announcement from the stage.

Soon into the second half, an object was dropped which clattered on the floor and then – in the last of Ligeti’s Book II studies – in the long-held pause while the piano’s action resounds before the coda, one of the hall’s elderly patrons opted for a ’quick’ getaway and all-but ruined Ligeti’s effect by the resultant distinctly creaking seat and muffled footsteps. The perpetrator was equally oblivious.

Yet, this was a majestic recital; one wonders if Ligeti ever expected all his Études would be played together in one go. There are currently 18 of them – six in the first book, eight in the second and four presently the tally in the third. The last completed étude, Canon, ends quietly and thus Aimard made the sensible decision to place Book III at the start of the second half. He probably did not bank on the (for once!) utter silence at the end of Canon, so he solemnly tided his sheet music and placed it to his side to offer a break before Book II. That book ends with the extraordinary percussive Coloana infinita, not only with the long open resonance of the piano having been pummelled with great force, but an even more climactic coda where the player has to hammer the highest notes on the keyboard in a blur of not just digits but the whole hand.

It is just such extremes that characterise Ligeti’s studies, quite rightly described by Misha Donat in his detailed programme note as “the most dazzling series of piano pieces of our time,” with typical Ligeti trademarks such as reaching the outer regions of the keyboard and then suddenly jumping to the other end (indeed, the very first study – Désordre – starts with both hands together, mid-keyboard, before getting further and further apart in a welter of figurations). Aimard, using self-assembled scores of each study as a mnemonic, was utterly focused (in Désordre so concentrating on the part that he didn’t once glance at his fingers) and utterly convincing. No other pianist can touch him in this repertoire, and – like his stunning performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards (17 January 1999) as part of that year’s BBC January Composer series – the playing is of such a high standard that it beggars belief.

But Aimard is not just about technical precision. He is a rounded musician who instils Debussy’s Études with both wit and drama; indeed, Aimard invested each of the Debussy pieces with the emotional intensity of individual narratives.

Aimard plays Ligeti’s Piano Concerto on the 18th as part of the Barbican Centre’s “Ligeti at 80” weekend, and this Wigmore recital was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 28 October.

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