Ligeti cites Debussy as one of
the four great composers who thought pianistically (the others are Domenico
Scarlatti, Chopin and Schumann). It was, therefore, entirely appropriate
to begin this recital with Debussy’s Etudes of 1915, that composer’s
last original pieces for piano. Still perhaps undervalued even today,
they represent an astonishingly rich source of ideas and proved an excellent
first course to this Ligeti-dominated concert.
In the event, however, there were
two interruptions. Firstly, after the second Etude, Aimard turned to
the audience, expressed concern about a ‘vibration’ from the piano,
and called out the piano tuner. Later, despite a public plea from a
Wigmore staff member to turn off all mobiles, someone’s hand-held went
off, loudly and extensively, towards the end of the set, prompting ushers
to pace the isles, their eyes searching feverishly for the miscreant.
All very distracting.
The music was what mattered, and
it was difficult to fault Aimard. He brought a Brendelesque wit to ‘Cinq
doigts’, resisting the temptation to ‘warm’ the textures too indulgently.
He brought instead an almost exultant feel to the piece. Perhaps predictably,
Aimard highlighted the exploratory nature of the questing fourths of
the second Etude, bringing energy aplenty to the outbursts and linking
the piece to the ‘Minstrels’ Prélude. The playful and
superbly even ‘Pour les dégres chromatiques’ proved the perfect
foil for the egg-shell delicacy of ‘Pour les sonorités opposées’;
the washes of sound in ‘arpèges composées’ were never
purely indulgent. But most impressive of all was ‘Pour les huit doigts’,
wherein Aimard seemed to want to relate some of the gestures to some
of those in electronic music! The execution demonstrated supreme rapidity.
Ligeti was to be the star of the
evening, though, whatever the merits of the Debussy. Ligeti takes in
jazz, chaos theory, Nancarrow and sub-Saharan music as further elements
of his language to emotionally devastating results. Book I (1985) came
before the interval. Here was humour, virtuosity and pulsating energy
all in one. Hardly moving at all, Aimard despatched ‘Désordre’’s
schizophrenic aspect superbly. There was supreme sensitivity and gentleness
in ‘Cordes à vide’ (traits to return in ‘Arc-en-ciel’), contrasting
with the jerky spasms of ‘Touches bloquées’. The Messiaen-like
‘Fanfares’ obviously suited Aimard to the ground. The final Etude, ‘Automne
à Varsovie’ was remarkable not only for the pulsating vibrancy
of the accompaniment, but also for the almost Tchaikovskian fatalism
of the descending figure (parts were also distinctly Debussian here).
Books III and II (in that order)
provided the second half, a demonstration of the utmost stamina on Aimard’s
part. Book III is still ongoing (the pieces we have date from 1996-2001).
For the first piece, ‘White on White’, Aimard revealed he can play with
the simplicity that only comes with experience; the autumnal ‘Pour Irina’
(dedicated to Aimard’s wife) consisted of beautifully projected lines
contrasting with the hard-edged lines of the second half. Nancarrow
seemed to have a say on the third, ‘A bout de souffle’, which moves
to extremes before a lyrical flowering. An exciting ‘Canon’ rounded
off this work-in-progress.
Finishing with Book II means one
ends with the hyper-virtuoso ‘Coloana infinita’, which did indeed bring
the house down. If the shimmeringly luminous, gamelan-infused ‘Galamb
borong’ was an object exercise in sonority, Aimard highlighted the jazzy
side of ‘Fém’. Throughout, the impression was that Ligeti has
composed some of the most significant, if not the most significant,
piano music of recent times. The ‘bell-ringing’ energies and saturated
climaxes of ‘L’escalier du diable’ was perhaps the most powerful experience
of the evening (it is also the longest of all the Etudes).
A concert of, essentially, Ligeti,
might at one time have guaranteed plenty of space in the hall. How wonderful
to see the Wigmore bursting at the seams, therefore. Aimard has, rightly,
a big following. His dedication to the music he believes in is beyond
doubt, his technique beyond criticism and his identification with Ligeti
complete. Who could possibly ask for more?