Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Études symphoniques, Op.13 [including the ‘posthumous’ variations]
Études – Pour les cinq doigts’
Étude No.7 ‘Galomb borong’
Études, Op.25 – No.2 in F minor
Étude No.3 ‘Touches bloquées’
Étude-tableaux, Op.33 – No.5 in E flat minor
Étude No.6 ‘Automne à Varsovie’
Trois nouvelles études – No.1 in F minor
Étude No.11 ‘En suspens’
Grandes études de Paganini – No.5 in E ‘La chasse’
Étude No.4 ‘Fanfares’
Quatre études de rythme – No.1 ‘Île de feu 1’
Étude No.13 ‘L’escalier du diable’

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 May, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A recital linked by the Étude (“An instrumental piece designed primarily to exploit and perfect a particular facet of performing technique”). The composers played at this recital went further.

The first half consisted of Schumann’s Études symphoniques. This is more a set of variations, and named as such by Schumann in one of the three versions that he deliberated over (Études en formes de variations is the title of the 1852 revision). Schumann’s friend Brahms finally knocked the work into shape and he reverted to the 1837 title. Brahms also published as an appendix five studies that Schumann omitted; Pierre-Laurent Aimard added them back, as a group (some pianists intersperse singly or ignore altogether), to extend the reach of the work.

Aimard’s consideration and sensitivity paid many dividends. Just occasionally he seemed to be a little ‘shy’ of presenting Schumann in full bloom and impulsiveness – too concerned with the ‘symphoniques’ aspect, maybe – but with an increase in intensification about 10 minutes in, Aimard also found an emotionalism that underlines most of Schumann’s music; shapeliness intact and with concern with dynamic and tonal variegation, Aimard ranged from passionate demonstration to rapt contemplation and certainly compelled that we listen to Schumann’s complex machinations that were here made lucid without diminishing the composer’s ambiguous expression.

With each half lasting around 35 minutes, this may not have been the most generous recital in terms of playing time. That Aimard didn’t offer an encore at the close of the 12-piece second half said more about the thought that had gone into this contrasting and wide selection, one that suggested that Western Classical Music is a continuous evolution rather than a series of defined chapters.

Thus Ligeti underpinned the whole and ‘Galomb borong’ seemed of a similar if distinct world to the Debussy Étude that opened the second half, Debussy’s innocent five-finger exercise that quickly develops into something utterly distinctive, Aimard totally at one with the music’s suppleness. Aimard is, of course, a master of Ligeti’s music and his devotion to it was evident throughout. What was intriguing was the correspondences that he found: that dissolving from Ligeti to Chopin was complementary – and what a mercurial Chopin-player Aimard is; how elusive Chopin’s writing seemed. Aimard is a mercurial champion of Rachmaninov, too, stressing the composer’s fantasist traits. Liszt also emerged in a new light, as a joyous embellisher of Paganini’s merry tune, and when dissonance reared its head, as in the overlay of Ligeti’s ‘Automne à Varsovie’, one was also aware of the composer’s rich polyphony, just as Messiaen’s dislocated rhythms seemed more than arbitrary.

‘L’escalier du diable’ ended this 35-minute, uninterrupted sequence in which one imagines the devil forever trying to escape from down below (the constant upward motion suggests this) yet the path to escape is slippery underfoot and the journey is attempted again and again until hammered chords suggest a point of crisis. The end is a long-held diminuendo to nothingness, which Aimard gave full value to; the audience, as throughout, kept silent until Aimard signalled the end to a fascinating and thought-provoking compilation, one played with panache and commitment, musicianship to the fore.

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