Queen Elizabeth Hall
George Benjamin – Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm
Ravel – Miroirs
Chopin – Berceuse in D-flat major, op.57
Chopin – Scherzo no.2 in B-flat major, op.31
Beethoven – Fifteen Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme in E-flat major, op.35, ‘Eroica Variations’
The Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series had kicked off in style a couple of weeks ago, with a truly wonderful recital from Dame Mitsuko Uchida. Next to be heard was the doyen of modernistic pianists, Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Aimard opened with a fiftieth birthday tribute to his friend George Benjamin: the third of Benjamin’s Three Studies for Piano, ‘Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm’. This is the repertoire in which Aimard excels; the present case was no exception. Benjamin’s playful treatment of the opening rhythmic cell provided a showcase – in the best sense – for Aimard’s rhythmic exactitude, pianistic resonance, and precision of voicing. Opening rather like a more expansive and less explosive descendant of Boulez’s Notations, a sense of fantasy developed alongside clear and meaningful delineation of structure through transformation, thereby prefiguring Ravel’s Miroirs.
Ravel’s set of five pieces opened somewhat unpromisingly. Noctuelles was cool, arguably cold, glassy in tone. Aimard experienced no difficulties with the transcendental pianistic demands, but where were the moths? I liked the throwaway ending though. Oiseaux tristes proved more atmospheric, whilst retaining its modernistic moorings, kinship to Gaspard de la nuit readily apparent. Ravelian water music, sprites and all, was to be heard in Une barque sur l’océan, yet a welcome level of abstraction pervaded the interpretation. The neo-Lisztian quality of Ravel’s writing was clearly brought out, making me wish to hear Aimard in Liszt: perhaps in 2011, for the composer’s anniversary year? Orchestral, yet equally pianistic, this was an exemplary performance: shimmeringly musical, never merely pictorial. Alborada del gracioso was somewhat disappointing. Perhaps I had the orchestral version too firmly lodged in my head, but a broader range of colour would not have gone amiss, likewise greater flexibility. Sharp rhythmic definition shaded into charmless bludgeoning. However, the darkness of the central section bewitched, peering forward to the world of the Left-Hand Piano Concerto. (Aimard has recently recorded Miroirs and the piano concertos with Boulez.) Finally, La vallée des cloches proved surprisingly luxuriant, without inappropriate perfume.
Two works by Chopin opened the second half. Rhythm was the key to the Berceuse, the waves lapping hypnotically. What I missed here and in the second Scherzo was the personal quality of Chopin’s voice. It can be heard in many guises, from Rubinstein to Pollini, but here it was difficult to detect. The Scherzo sounded rather sectional earlier on, but Aimard clearly delighted in Chopin’s pianistic inspiration.
Beethoven’s Eroica Variations rounded off the programme. We should doubtless hear these more, had Beethoven not surpassed himself and all but Bach in the later Diabelli Variations. Aimard must have made a good few converts with this performance. In the early variations, he tended towards the heavy-handed. Confounding received ideas of Beethovenian touch is one thing, but this put me in mind of similar passages in his 2008 Art of Fugue recital at the Wigmore Hall: anti-Romanticism pursued unremittingly and somewhat wearyingly. Structural integrity was never in doubt, however. Aimard seemed to melt as the variations progressed, though, increasingly delighting in the composer’s musical invention, for instance during the canonical writing of the seventh variation. The minore variation sounded surprisingly Romantically, with considerable pathos: almost Schubertian. There was, moreover, a properly effortful quality to the fugal writing. Bach could not be resurrected, but why should not Beethoven make the attempt and storm the heavens in so doing?