Scherzo in B flat minor, Op.31
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 8 December, 2010
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Pierre-Laurent Aimard has long been associated with Olivier Messiaen’s music; at the Paris Conservatoire, Messiaen’s wife, Yvonne Loriod, was his teacher. It was a natural choice then to devote the first half of this Carnegie Hall recital to the rarely performed Huit Préludes. Written while Messiaen was finishing his studies at the same institution in 1928-29, they already hint at his further development, with his use of non-traditional scales and rhythms.
Aimard has a very unassuming stage presence, the antithesis to Lang Lang, if you will. He thereby established from the very first note an atmosphere of being in the presence of an extremely serious, thoughtful and even philosophical artist, and his playing more than lived up to this premise. The majority of the Préludes move at a slow pace, often chordally – every harmony was carefully balanced, inner melodies clearly stated, and he never lost sight of the long lines. In those Préludes that are faster Aimard displayed the lightest of fleet touches – in ‘Le nombre léger’, and chattering chords in ‘Les sons impalpables du réve’. If there was one complaint, it was an absence of really soft dynamics until the sixth Prélude. However, as the pianist immersed himself deeper and deeper into Messiaen’s world, his volume-range expanded in both directions, and he ended the set with a dynamic performance of ‘Un reflet dans le vent’.
Aimard had started the recital with well-thought out but just slightly careful playing. After the interval he was completely attuned to the natural flow of the music immediately with Chopin’s Barcarolle, and the B flat Scherzo proved to be the high point of the evening. Mysterious and brooding at the beginning, followed by majestic chords and scale-passages with just a hint of rubato, it unfolded within a perfectly structured framework which allowed for tasteful expressiveness without wandering into the territory of soupy Romanticism. The middle section felt as if it was improvised for a gathering of close friends, achieving a degree of intimate communication one rarely hears in a large concert hall. In contrast, the coda had grandeur, power and excitement, without ever pushing the sound beyond the limits of this rather bright Steinway.
Many a pianist would have concluded the program with this bravura work, and such a performance surely would have triggered an ovation. Aimard, however, chose Ravel’s Miroirs, its last movement, ‘La vallée des cloches’, all but dies away. While ‘Alborado del gracioso’ may be the most famous piece in the finely nuanced, deeply felt, and exquisitely executed set, Aimard also made compelling arguments for ‘Une barque sur l’océan’, with gossamer, light swirls, and especially ‘Oiseaux tristes’. Aimard’s familiarity with Messiaen’s birdcalls makes him the ideal interpreter of it, as he managed to coax a multitude of tone-colors from repeated single pitches.
This was an impressive recital by a major artist, making it a shame that there were so many empty seats. Aimard is not a showman, his programs are not designed with mass-appeal in mind; what he offers is artistry at the highest level. There were two encores: György Kurtàg’s Hommage à Ferenc Berényi (from Játékok), announced by Aimard as something “even more quiet and distant”, and ‘Clocks IV’ from Harrison Birtwistle’s Harrison’s Clocks.