Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Queen Elizabeth Hall

George Benjamin
Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm
Berceuse, Op.57
Scherzo in B flat, Op.31
Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E flat, Op.35 (Eroica)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 October, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Not long ago regarded as a new-music specialist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard has increasingly established himself across the pianistic spectrum: a process that continued with this varied and, moreover, unarguably well-balanced recital that ran a backward course from the contemporary to the classical.

Having successfully London-launched George Benjamin’s Duet at this year’s Proms, Aimard now turned to the composer’s solo piano output – Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm (1985) being one of Three Studies that can be played either separately or as a set. As with other of Benjamin’s earlier pieces, a play on shifting metrical values (the ‘short-long’ emphasis of the metre in question) is fundamental to the music’s evolution, though Aimard was mindful not to predicate this over the emergence of a melodic element that came – here at least – intently, even rhetorically to the fore during the work’s climactic stages.

Whether or not Benjamin’s piano idiom leads back, via Messiaen, to Ravel is a matter of debate, and one of relative significance given that this account of Miroirs (1905) left little to be desired as regards technique or interpretation. Above all, this is not merely a collection of sharply individuated pieces but a cohesive sequence whose constituents gain much when heard as an ongoing entity. Thus the quicksilver contrasts of ‘Noctuelles’ led seamlessly into the pensive figuration of ‘Oiseaux tristes’ – just a little too rapid here yet never less than deftly characterised – then the textural interplay of ‘Une barque sur l’océan’, distilling a heady emotional charge towards its conclusion, found a natural corollary in the capricious japes and ominous ruptures of ‘Alborada del gracioso’. Perhaps ‘La vallée des cloches’ could have evinced even greater intensity as its underlying melody emerges from, then recedes into the harmonic resonance of its outer sections, but its poise and inevitability were hardly in doubt. Aimard has recently recorded the complete work along with Ravel’s concertos with Boulez conducting (on Deutsche Grammophon), and if that is comparable to what was heard here, it should be a mandatory acquisition.

After the interval, Aimard offered his contribution to the Chopin bicentenary year with apposite juxtaposition of the Berceuse (1844) and the Second Scherzo (1837). The former piece yielded its ruminative variations on a ‘ground’ with unforced sureness – Aimard’s detached though never aloof approach then transferring effectively to the latter which, with its pointedly contrasted themes and (a sure sign of Chopinesque things to come) an intensively worked development section following the central trio, unfolded as an unequivocal meeting of opposites that was capped by a scintillating coda.

How much Chopin draws upon the example of Beethoven in his later extended pieces is a moot point, but the latter’s Eroica Variations (1802) seemed hardly out of place as the template towards which the recital had been leading. And, though there have been more unpredictable interpretations of this gateway into the composer’s second period, the expressive alacrity that Aimard brought to the sequence as a whole – from the deadpan humour of its introduction and ‘pre-variations’, through the judicious but cumulatively characterised contrasts of the variations that follow, to the disjunctive yet ultimately harmonious components of the fugal finale – was its own justification. Beethoven may have gone on to write deeper or more finely integrated works, but he seldom pushed the formal and expressive boundaries as engagingly as here – and Aimard brought out that quality in full measure.

An enthusiastic reception seemed a little nonplussed when no encore was forthcoming and yet, having given us two complementary halves of almost identical length, Aimard no doubt felt the recital as it stood said all that needed to be said: a conviction that, all things being equal, could hardly be denied.

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