Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon; Élégie; Masques
Préludes – Book II
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 3 September, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
In his 150th-anniversary year, this year’s BBC Proms season has included an examination of Debussy’s principal chamber works – and now, courtesy of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a well-programmed piano recital.
Aimard began with Debussy’s last published work, a three-minute piece written in 1917 in gratitude to his coal merchant. Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (Evenings lit by glowing coals) proved a vivid and descriptive introduction, based as it is on notes from the final Prélude of Book II, ‘Feux d’artifice’. Listening to Aimard was akin to gazing deep into the fire itself, the notes softly but hypnotically cast. The Élégie of 1905 is more direct in its musical language, Aimard probing the melodic line, while Masques had a cheeky edge to it, playful around the edges but with some judicious pedalling to aid dynamics.
These pieces were but mere trifles, however, in comparison with Aimard’s account of Book II of the Préludes. From the outset it was clear he knew this music’s every expression and nuance.He was just as compelling to watch as he was to listen to, and shared an aside or two with the audience in a wonderfully unhinged ‘General Lavine – eccentric’, with a bluesy inclination or two slipped in to its leading melody. For the tolling of the United Kingdom national anthem at the outset of ‘Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq.’ He caught the bare-faced vulgarity of the lower octave statement, inclining his head towards the audience as he did so, while as the piece progressed the notion of Debussy indulging in musical doodling was difficult to resist.
Elsewhere there was intense poetry, with a softly brushed account of ‘Brouillards’ setting the atmospheric tone from the outset, and the lazy habanera of ‘La Puerto del Vino’ also cast a beguiling charm. The attention to detail in ‘Bruyères’ was exquisite, complemented by evenness of touch; the use of silence was similarly telling. Throughout it was notable that Aimard barely reached the fortissimo dynamic, but it was also clear that his variation of volume was keenly honed and scrupulously prepared. When he did finally reach the loudest peak, in a sparkling display of ‘Feux d’artifice’, the effect was stunning and completely convincing, negating the need for an encore.