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CD: AmazonUK

The Pierre-Laurent Aimard Collection
see end of review for details
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe (CD1 Mozart, CD2 Beethoven); Berliner Philharmoniker/Kent Nagano (CD1 Messiaen); Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (CD2 Dvořák); Nikolaus Harnoncourt (CD2 Beethoven, Dvořák)
Various recording dates and locations
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 691492 [77:36 + 76:27]
Experience Classicsonline

The Pierre-Laurent Aimard Collection is one of a number of releases highlighting Warner artists such as José Carreras, Hélène Grimaud and Maxim Vengerov. As you can see from the title listings, few of the works here appear in complete form, though many do stand alone as strong individual pieces.

One point I would make about the programming is a practical one. I can understand the decision to shuffle classics and more modern pieces around. Had I been a member of the meeting which decided on the track order I would however have voted for more of a chronological sequence - from Mozart to Carter. In this way you would have had all the nice ‘easier’ classics and romantics on CD 1, and the more challenging stuff on CD 2. “Ah yes” says a voice from the other side of the table, “but if we did that no-one would play disc 2.” “Perhaps” I reply, “but at least they would have been able to play disc 1 at dinner parties, where people can say ‘hmmm, this is nice, who is the pianist?’ As it stands, there are too many mines laid for easy listening ...”

Still, enough of all this consumerist speculation; and besides, the Beethoven sonata movement is a pretty hairy listen as well. Pierre-Laurent Aimard has in the last few years been transformed from something of a modern music specialist, initially appearing as solo pianist of Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain, to one of the hottest performing/recording artists on the circuit. As you might expect, the variety of material on show here is a good showcase for his recorded repertoire to date, but also represents how effective is his playing in each style. The opening Mozart movement has a freshness and spontaneity which is irrepressible. This is a good example of Aimard’s clarity and musicianship, something which, teamed with incomparable technical prowess, has to be every record label’s dream. The second track Larghetto has a strange vibrato on the piano sound, which I’m not sure is due to the transfer or the original, but is a rather disconcerting effect and turned me off from some otherwise fine if not entirely grunt-free playing. The Beethoven ‘Appassionata’ is another fine chunk of playing with some beautiful effects as well as all the drama you could hope to get from this music. It is a bit of a bumpy ride however if the truth be known. Probably as a side effect of the ‘mad dash’ effect of this kind of collection, piling as much good stuff as possible into the smallest space, I found it a bit hard to become involved in the music. All the tunes are there, but they don’t seem to tell me anything other than that they are being played by a brilliant pianist. The complete Gaspard de la nuit is a different kettle of fish in this regard. It may be Aimard’s greater sympathy with his fellow countryman or the shift away from Teutonic gruffness, but his Ravel is filled with far more colour and imagination. It may not always be perfection, but even where Aimard is less stereotypically even or ethereal of touch I find him searching and exploratory, drawing the listener in and embracing the atmosphere and narrative in the music in a very moving and effective recording.

Continuing in France, we are launched into one of the bits with solo piano from Messiaen’s vast Turangalila symphony. Not much to say about this, other than to recommend the Kent Nagano/Berlin Philharmoniker version of this piece as a very strong contender in a now well stocked market. Aimard’s connections with Messiaen via Boulez and his studies with Yvonne Loriod make his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus authoritative. The Regard de l’Esprit de joie should convince you of this, with Aimard’s clarity and technical excellence rendering difficult music an inspirational excitement rather than an intellectual duty. Coming down from this to Debussy’s Images does have a kind of perverse logic, but with your brain cooking it’s harder to take an objective look at Reflets dans l'eau. I don’t dislike this or Aimard’s Pour les accords, but would agree with Michael Cookson that there is a strange unfinished quality to these performances. That exploratory feel extends somehow to a sense of distance from, or lack of intimacy with the essence of Debussy. Some good old-fashioned warmth and horizontal fleetness a la Cortot might just have done the trick in getting closer to the mark. Aimard’s recording of Ives’s Piano Sonata No.2 has already been described as having “fluid intelligence and unforgettable virtuosity” on these pages, and nothing I hear here persuades me otherwise.

Beethoven Piano Concertos are a staple of any recording artist worth his or her salt, and the Harnoncourt/Aimard combination sounds very nice indeed from this showing. It hasn’t inspired me to rush out and buy the set above, say, Perahia/Haitink on Sony, Kissin/Davis on EMI, or Pletnev/Gansch on DG, but everything is where it should be. This does sound like something of a compromise recording however - respectful and flowing, rather than vibrantly exciting. I would have preferred something a bit more experimental and anarchic. The Schumann Etude is decently up to speed, with beefy harmonies and that trademark clarity which I find helps hugely in heavy romantic piano music. The same goes for the Liszt St Francois de Paule marchant sur les flots. There is plenty enough poetry in the notes without an extra pianistic tug-or-war going on, and Aimard evokes this water-based religious miracle with breathtaking technical prowess. The finale of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto is another marvellous showpiece and should sell a few copies on this translucent and energetic showing.

Moving on to the final set of pieces, it’s good to have the Berg Piano Sonata No.1 from the 2001 Carnegie Hall recital, incidentally from which also come the Beethoven Sonata and Liszt tracks. Control and accuracy tend to dominate over real shifts of mood and extremes of emotion, but a very useful recording nonetheless. As with the solo Messiaen playing, Aimard’s recordings of Ligeti’s solo piano works are little short of legendary. The two brief pieces here have almost as much content and intensity as most of the rest of the programme put together. 29 seconds into the Canon you can hear the strings of the piano rattling together with the forces acting on them. I don’t find the piano version of Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood works at all. The relentless pinging of piano strings just ain’t the same as the subtle resonance of wooden percussion, and the end result of this track is a headache and ringing ears. Maybe Pierre-Laurent was listening to it and having second thoughts when his photo was taken for the cover of this album. Nicer to hear the marvellous playing in Elliott Carter’s Two Diversions, which are filled with multiple layers and intriguing irregular rhythmic patterns and relationships.

At budget price, this well-filled two disc set is a decent enough place to ‘find out what all the fuss is about’ with regard to Pierre-Laurent Aimard. In reality it is however little more than a rather awkwardly programmed sampler, and I can’t imagine many people saying “ooh, let’s put on that Pierre-Laurent Aimard Collection” just for fun. What I sincerely do hope is that it encourages collectors to seek out the original CDs - they’re all worth having.

Dominy Clements

Track details
CD 1
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No.15 in B flat major K450 (1784) III Allegro [7:52]
Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat major K595 (1791) II Larghetto [7:52]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor Op.57 “Appassionata” I Allegro assai [10:21]
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la nuit (1909) [23:10]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Turangalīla-Symphonie (1947-49) VII Turangalīla 2 (Un peu vif) [4:05]
Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus; X Regard de l’Esprit de joie (Presque vif) [8:14]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images: Book 1 (1905) I. Reflets dans l'eau [4:47]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Piano Sonata No 2 Concord (c.1915, published 1920-21) III ‘The Alcotts’ [6:23]
CD 2
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major Op.73 ‘Emperor’ Adagio un poco mosso [7:37]; Rondo: Allegro, ma non troppo [11:01]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Etudes Symphoniques op. 13 Étude XII (Finale): Allegro brillante [6:52]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Légendes No.2: St Francois de Paule marchant sur les flots [9:07]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Concerto in G minor, Op.33 (1876) III Allegro con fuoco [11:24]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1907/08) [12:29]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Études No.17: À bout de souffle [2:25]; No.18: Canon [1:31]
Steve REICH (b.1936)
Music for Pieces of Wood [8:04]
Elliott CARTER (b. 1908)
Two Diversions (1999) [7:44]


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