Wednesday 9 November 2011

Pierre-Laurent Aimard: Liszt, Bartók, Stroppa, Ravel, and Messiaen, 8 November 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage, Book III, S 163: ‘Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este: Thrénodie (I)’
Bartók – Four Dirges, op.9: no.4, ‘Nénie’
Liszt – Légende no.1, S 275/1: ‘St François d’Assise’
Stroppa – Miniature estrose: ‘Tangata manu’
Liszt – Années de pèlerinage, Book III, S 163: ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’
Ravel – Jeux d’eau
Messiaen – Catalogue d’oiseaux: ‘Le Traquet stapazin’
Liszt - Années de pèlerinage, Book I, S 160: ‘Vallée d’Obermann’

Just the sort of treatment Liszt needs: a thoughtful, fascinating programme, performed by a pianist who is first and foremost a musician, Pierre-Laurent Aimard. To see so many empty seats in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was saddening, whether for Liszt’s or Aimard’s sake; doubtless the Royal Festival Hall would have been full to the rafters for the likes of Lang Lang. Aimard’s recital was as far removed from such a travelling circus as one could imagine: works by Liszt combined with a fascinating range of related twentieth-century works. Crucially, Aimard performed the entire recital without an interval, and without applause. Would that other pianists might follow suit, where appropriate.

There was, thankfully, nothing remotely flashy about Aimard’s pianism. (Has there ever been?) Yet that does not imply a technique that is anything other than astounding. It is, however, harnessed to musical rather than to merely virtuosic results. As Liszt himself realised, to defeat mere virtuosi, one needs to have super-virtuosic means at one’s disposal. The control with which Aimard, for instance, shaped the climaxes of ‘Vallée d’Obermann’ provided a masterclass in both technical and musical senses. The B minor Sonata sounded, rightly, just around the corner. So, incidentally, in the introduction did Eugene Onegin: not the only time Tchaikovsky seems to have cribbed from Liszt. (Compare their respective first piano concertos, though not in form.)

The third book of the Années de pèlerinage had provided two items earlier on, the opening ‘Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este: Thrénodie (I)’ and ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’. The former emerged as finely poised as I have heard between the grand and lyrical Romantic manner of Liszt’s maturity and the dark intimations of old age. The way in which the latter gradually won out, though never entirely, over the former was a tribute both to the pianist’s – as well as the composer’s – technical and intellectual means and to the vividness of his pianist imagination. The fourth of Bartók’s Four Dirges, ‘Nénie’, followed on, as if a supplement penned by Liszt himself. Harmony and voice sounded almost as one: a revelatory choice of programming. If only we could have heard all four.

‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’ and Ravel’s Jeux d’eau may have been a more obvious coupling, but here, Aimard’s twist was as much to highlight distinction as much as undeniable debt. (When Ravel was asked how his work should be performed, he responded, ‘like Liszt, of course'.) Through the brilliant evocation of fountains and their games, we realised that for Ravel, they were just that: games, albeit of surpassing elegance. Liszt, however, invested a sense of the divine into a typically awestruck depiction of Nature. As the composer, acknowledged in his quotation from St John, ‘But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.’ If Messiaen’s ‘Le Traquet stapazin’ from Catalogue d’oiseaux owes something to the writing of Ravel and Debussy, in its spirituality it has much more in common with Liszt. As one might expect, Aimard’s account was nothing less than magnificent: fully idiomatic in tone, tempo, and overall conception, as commanding of silence as of intervallic relationships, and seemingly at one with the composer’s spirit.

It was only really in the Légende, ‘St François d’Assise’, that I harboured any doubts – and it would be astonishing in such a recital if some works did not come off better than others. The tempo seemed a little laboured, which is not to say that it necessarily was in objective terms, but rather that Lisztian fantasy did not quite take flight. Even here, there were compensations, in hearing a great deal more than one often does of the relationship between the notes, but the poetic ‘idea’ was not quite fully voiced. The piece made an excellent introduction, however, to Marco Stroppa’s 1995 ‘Tangata manu’, from his Miniature estrose, a work which not only in its piano writing but also in its subject matter, the divine hunt for the egg of a sea swallow, connected so many concerns of Liszt, Ravel, and Messiaen. The treble register of Aimard’s Yamaha proved as equal to the challenge as the pianist’s mind and fingers.

More is to come on 7 December. There is also a recording, which I have not yet heard, featuring repertoire from both recitals. I fully intend to investigate.