Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Queen Elizabeth Hall: 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: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 8 November, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Graham TurnerThis recital featured all the pieces on the second disc of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s new Liszt Project recording (on Deutsche Grammophon). In his next QEH recital, Aimard is playing all the works on the first disc. The point of The Liszt Project is to show how inextricably indebted later composers are to Liszt’s music – not only for the vast range of technical possibilities he opened out, but also for his influence on how we think of creative artists, their emotional and philosophical reach, and how this hasn’t changed much over the past 150 years.

We were left in no doubt as to the uncompromising seriousness of Aimard’s purpose and how vital a part Liszt plays in the work of contemporary composers – a world away from Liebestraum and heroic virtuosity, nurtured by a musician at the heart of the French contemporary music establishment. There was no interval – for a programme (played from scores throughout) lasting less than 80 minutes (CD length!) – and there was to be no applause until the end. There was a connecting elemental presence of air and water in the various pieces to remind us how brilliantly Liszt could evoke unattainable states of being.

At the start and end of the recital were two of Liszt’s grander statements about the isolation of the romantic ego, a concept that is still in rude good health. Aimard set the bar high with an intense performance of the Villa d’Este cypresses threnody, in which the piano’s cavernous bass supported the shifting harmonic layers of the funereal atmosphere in a quintessentially romantic memento mori. This mood continued into the Bartók Dirge, from around the same time as Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, except that here the layers were more clearly defined and the harmonies even less functional than in the Liszt. The airy fluttering of the birds on the receiving end of St Francis’s sermon took flight with spellbinding evenness of touch, growing into the visionary quality of the sermon itself. The idea of flight was pushed to extremes in Aimard’s virtuosic performance of Tangata manu by Marco Stroppa (born 1959), a musical re-telling of a creation myth from Easter Island, an extended visionary piece that gave Aimard’s technical and interpretative powers a full work-out. In the two fountain pieces, Aimard’s control of pace and colour was superb, and he deftly pointed up the spiritual and pictorial differences between the two composers. The Messiaen work was extraordinarily vivid – a celebration not only of the black-eared wheatear of the title but also of an entire aviary of birdlife in music raucous with birdsong, played with disarming frankness and sheer joy in its iridescence. Liszt’s great Vallée d’Obermann returned us to the world of Byronic self-absorption, grandly introspective certainly, but the sort of music that gave later composers a clue as to what the piano was capable of. In a work that presents many opportunities for barnstorming posturing, Aimard kept his cool. He’s not a showman; his apparent detachment enabled the character of each piece to reveal itself in playing of intense focus and articulation. He asserted the fierce originality of all the works here, conferring on them, however short, stature and self-possession. Aimard demanded a lot from his audience, and it was worth it.

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