Prom Chamber Music 5: 20th August 2001- Amazing Aimard

Barcarolle, Op.60
Études – Op.25/7, 8 & 12
Images (Book 2)
Études – No.7 (Galam Borong)
No.18 (Canon, UK première)
No.2 (Cordes à vide)
No.6 (Automne en Varsovie)
No.10 (Der Zauberlehring)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 20 August, 2001
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Having already delighted Proms audiences with his fearless and peerless assumption of Messiaen’s piano solo in Turangalîla just over a week earlier (Prom 29), French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was back in London after a quick visit to Salzburg. For this Chamber Prom he devised a programme reflecting the main thematic elements of the Proms this year – pastoral and exile. Both Chopin and Ligeti moved away from their homeland – albeit Chopin somewhat unwittingly (having left, he found he was not able to return, and spent the second half of his all-too-short life based in Paris). Debussy was represented by his Second Book of Images – all three pieces are inspired by nature – respectively church bells heard through leaves, the moon descending behind an oriental temple, and goldfish.

Aimard, as evidenced by his most recent appearances in London – including Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, the South Bank’s 75th-birthday celebrations for Boulez and his teaming up with Alfred Brendel for a poetry recital where Aimard played short Ligeti and Kurtág pieces between Brendel’s own sotto voce readings of his poems – is a master of the contemporary keyboard. However, he doesn’t want to be ghettoised into an avant-garde pigeonhole; here we had an opportunity to hear him in a composer central to the piano – Chopin.

The Barcarolle, inspired by Venice, was darkly hued, with an oppressive lilt to the rocking rhythm; in the Seventh of the Op.25 Études, Aimard brought out the disturbing harmonic progression of the opening bars – out Wagnering Wagner in its audacity (it was Charles Rosen that pointed out that Chopin presaged most of Wagner’s harmonic experimentation – indeed, had Chopin lived longer, musical history may have been able to dispense with Wagner’s services altogether!); although it was a theme from Bellini’s Norma that Chopin took as his starting point. Étude No.8 revelled in its moto perpetuo triplets based on the interval of a sixth, No.12, which brought us full-circle to the sea, is sometimes known as the ’Ocean Study’ because of the rippling waves up and down the keyboard.

Debussy was a great admirer of and heavily influenced by Chopin; the two always fit well together in recital. Here Aimard’s acute ear and touch for sonority evoked the three images – bells filtered through right-hand rippling figurations evoking shimmering shadows of gently-moving leaves in bright sunlight; the heady atmosphere of an oriental night; and the aquatic antics of goldfish.

The final third of the one-hour recital was devoted to György Ligeti’s ongoing series of Études. Aimard programmed four, including the UK première of the latest, No 18, written for Aimard, simply called ’Canon’ – although Ligeti had originally thought of calling it ’finger breaker’, and we could see why!A closely knitted canonic phrase develops through various volumes and attacks and the whole thing is repeated at greater speed before a chordal coda.Aimard had preceded that with the first study of Ligeti’s Book 2, ’Galam Borong’, described by the composer as ’nonsense Gamelan’, and followed ’Canon’ with the Debussy-like ’Cordes à vide’. ’Autumn in Warsaw’, in Aimard’s thoughtful programme, took us back to Chopin’s home city, which – like Ravel’s La valse – ends as if torn apart, with a forte-fortissimo descending chromatic plunge across the whole keyboard.

For an encore, Aimard chose from Ligeti’s Book 2, ’The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, with its repeated cluster of notes subtly changing rhythm before the hands move away from each other while still virtuosically pummelling the keyboard. Extraordinary! I wondered if perhaps Aimard makes these pieces seem too easy – perhaps diminishing Ligeti’s extraordinary compositional style; shouldn’t it look much harder to play?

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Sunday, 26 August, at 1 o’clock
  • Aimard returns to London for a Royal Festival Hall recital as part of the Harrods International Piano Series on 12 May 2002, 3.30pm – Mozart and Beethoven (Appassionata) plus Debussy’s Images (Book 1) and Messiaen’s Études de Rhythme.

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