Aimard & Nott

Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat, K595
Musica ricercata No.2
George Benjamin
Duet [London premiere]
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Miroirs – Une barque sur l’océan
La valse – poème chorégraphique

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 2 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jonathan Nott. Photograph: Priska Ketterer/TudorFour-and-a-half years after his debut with the orchestra, and following a brace of well-received appearances at last year’s BBC Proms, Jonathan Nott here returned to the BBC Symphony for a concert of intriguing halves: the first of which proved to be as unlikely as the second was revelatory.

Opening a concert with a Mozart piano concerto is hardly unknown these days, but to follow it with another work for piano and orchestra might be stretching a point. Having recorded all three of the B flat concertos, Pierre-Laurent Aimard is well-versed in Mozartean niceties, but this account of K595 was oddly unsatisfying. Save for one unaccountable slip from Aimard (in the exposition’s transition to the second theme), the first movement unfolded securely and with real appreciation of its ruminative interplay between soloist and orchestra, but failed to take wing – whether in a development whose modulations Aimard ran through as though so many boxes to be ticked, or a cadenza which rendered Mozart’s subtleties too concretely.Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Graham TurnerThe Larghetto had poise but little poignancy for all that Nott underlined textural contrasts between woodwind and strings with a chamber-like transparency: valedictory this music no longer is in reality, but it should surely sound less matter-of-fact. The finale was lively but never too robust, with Nott’s unforced rhythmic pointing rightly implying a measure of release from the foregoing resignation and the whole confirming no mean rapport between pianist and conductor.

As an entrée into the next main work, Aimard gave the second piece from Ligeti’s piano-cycle Musica ricercata – its amiable playing on the notes E sharp and F sharp undercut by the intrusion of G, whose emergence was characterised with the alacrity and the aplomb he invariably brings to this composer.

George Benjamin uses rather more notes in the opening bars alone of Duet, premiered by this pianist just two years ago, yet the essence of this short (12-minute) but eventful work is one of reasoned discourse and overall cooperation between the individual and the group. So the former’s harmonically translucent introduction for the soloist leads into a tensile and fastidiously scored interplay, before a wistful revisit of the opening makes way for a lively and evermore emphatic conclusion – steering, as so often with this composer, a teasingly fine line between what has been and what could be said.

Another persuasive piece from Benjamin, then, with a performance to match – though whether this first half really added up in practice is another matter, and the point was driven home by a second half that came together in every sense. Ravel’s shorter orchestral works suggest various groupings: a Spanish-related ‘suite’ has been tried on various occasions, and one centred on the waltz is no less pertinent. Certainly Valses nobles et sentimentales can prove elusive as a stand-alone work: here, its abrasive opening and flamboyant seventh numbers were vividly projected yet assimilated into a gradual unfolding inwards – several of them merging together as though one were an outgrowth of the other and with an ‘Epilogue’ that reviewed what went before in a dream-like yet intense ambience that, when played as eloquently as here, could only seem the more tantalising in its inconclusiveness.

All of which made Une barque sur l’océan a natural continuation, whatever the absence of a ‘waltz factor’. Ravel’s orchestration of the third piece from his Miroirs cycle was performed just once in his lifetime, and has only gained wider currency this past quarter-century, yet the sheer effortlessness with which the already mesmeric piano timbres are re-imagined can seldom have been so powerfully conveyed as in this account; Nott instilling what can seem one of its composer’s most inscrutable inspirations with an emotion that was no less heart-rending by being held so firmly yet deftly in check.

From this plateau of detachment to the heady peak of catastrophe that is La valse then felt but a small step. What impressed here was the eschewing of any hint of the ‘powerhouse’ overkill to have marred so many attempts at characterising this most unequivocal of Ravel’s later works, Nott taking its underlying waltz rhythm as the basis for a ‘fantasia’ whose abundance of ideas was outweighed by the seamlessness of its follow-through. While there was no lack of suavity or finesse in the way each section was realised, it was the intent focus on an apotheosis in which frenzy and terror are as one that made this a performance to savour – setting the seal on an unexpected yet effective triptych. The warmth of response from audience and orchestra alike seemed to confirm its success, marking what is surely just the latest instalment in Nott’s association with this orchestra and these concerts.

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