Boulez, Schoenberg, Debussy: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) QEH 25 March 2000
If there is one common strand to this weekend's Boulez celebrations it is the number 12. The South Bank's own commission is of twelve miniatures by today's leading composers, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard's recital was focussed on the number 12. The first half of his recital, coupling Boulez's Notations, First Piano Sonata and Schoenberg's Five Pieces, involved twelve notes, in twelve parts, in twelve pieces, and the second half coupled Debussy's two books of Études, twelve in all. It was all nicely symmetrical.
Aimard used two different pianos for his recital. That for the Boulez and Schoenberg had greater projection (so important in the Boulez), whereas the piano for the Debussy offered a greater luminosity of tone, in keeping with the impressionism of Debussy's writing. In lesser hands, one might have missed this, but Aimard is a colourist almost without peer amongst today's pianists. The technique is fabulously assured - so much so that he is able to concentrate on the textures of a piece. (Maurizio Pollini's performances of the Twelve études reveal astonishing technique but at the expense of the music's clear inner beauty; Aimard, by contrast, invests these pieces with a painter's touch.)
Boulez's piano writing is often terrifically exciting. The contrasts between the First Sonata's active and dreamy elements were phrased impeccably, the "volcanic mass of collapsed elements" (Aimard), in the second movement, often titanic. In Notations, the debt to Messiaen's pianistic imagination (particularly in the Vingt Regards, just released on a sensational recording by Aimard) was made transparent, but the harmony remained intensely Boulezian. By placing Schoenberg's revolutionary Five Pieces alongside, Aimard made the debt owed even clearer, although I find Boulez's writing often more attractive than Schoenberg's arid tone world. Aimard played with bewitching virtuosity.
The Debussy was transcendent, Aimard's imagination and blend of colour scintillating throughout. The Fifth and Twelth études were particularly outstanding, the dash across the keyboard demonic, the tonal allure beguiling. This was pianism of rare refinement, inspirational from beginning to end.
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