Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Lincoln Center: The Liszt Project – I

Années de pèlerinage, Book III – Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este (Thrénodie)
Four Dirges, Op.9 – IV: Nénie
Legends – St François d’Assise: La prédiction aux oiseaux
Miniature estrose – Tangata manu
Années de pèlerinage, Book III – Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este
Jeux d’eau
Catalogue d‘oiseaux, Book II – Le Traquet stapazin
Années de pèlerinage, Book I (Suisse) – Vallée d’Obermann

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 21 April, 2012
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Graham TurnerThis recital was the first of two in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Liszt Project, in which he presents some of his works in conjunction with music of his contemporaries and successors. The demanding program focused on four Liszt pieces and compositions by 20th- and 21st-century composers reflecting Liszt’s influence.

Aimard approaches Liszt by presenting the most complex passages in the context of the larger, frequently innovative structure of each work. In the three selections from Années de pèlerinage and in Saint Francis’s sermon to the birds, this approach yields greater depth and poetry with harmonies that strongly point the way to Hugo Wolf and Schoenberg, and Debussy, Ravel, and early Bartók. This comparison was striking in the first pair of works: Liszt’s Villa d’Este threnody and the last of Bartók’s Four Dirges (1909-10). The influence of Liszt on Bartók’s even more daring harmonies and rhapsodic form were clarified in this pairing, and while the Bartók built up less of a head of steam than the Liszt, its underlying momentum was far stronger.

The juxtaposition of two very different descriptive works, Liszt’s Legend depicting Saint Francis’s sermon, Marco Stroppa’s Tangata manu presented contrasts more than parallels. Liszt’s straightforward storytelling in sound from the early Christian tradition differs markedly with Stroppa’s fantasy on human flight drawn from the myths and rituals of Easter Island. The latter work is filled with evocative imagery and exciting sonorities; its sudden changes in mood and timbre seem influenced by Olivier Messiaen and Giacinto Scelsi.

The pairing of two fountain pieces showed the clear influence of Liszt’s Villa d’Este fountains on Ravel’s early masterpiece Jeux d’eau. While Ravel’s piano writing is more restrained than Liszt’s, it benefits from carefully controlled piano tone and articulation, which Aimard also brought to the Liszt, yielding a sense of many cascades seen from a distance.

The harmonic content of Le Tarquet stapazin (The black-eared wheatear) is, along with the rest of the Catalogue d’oiseaux, among the most daunting in Messiaen’s output. Using a wide dynamic range and clearly-etched articulation, Aimard kept on a steady track this formally complex tracing of a day in a bird’s life near marshlands and vineyards. Similarly, Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann follows the protagonist on an internal journey to an imaginary valley, depicting his emotions as they go from longing to agitation and, finally, fulfillment of his dream of solitude. Aimard’s introspective performance was dramatically satisfying, with stunning transparency and surprisingly few finger-slips in the enormously difficult coda.

Aimard produced a pleasingly warm sound with plenty of shimmer from the Steinway D, reinforcing my opinion that Alice Tully Hall is now New York’s acoustically finest recital venue. This outstanding and provocative performance was as musically satisfying and technically excellent as any in recent memory.

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