Prom king: French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard will take centre stage at this year's Proms

The pianist opening the Proms has endured temper tantrums, humiliation and awful pianos in his masochistic career. But Pierre-Laurent Aimard says he'd do anything for his eccentric musical mentors
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The Independent Culture

Daniel Barenboim may resonate beyond the confines of the concert hall, Lang Lang may make more noise, but for sheer ubiquity, no musician can compare with the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard: wherever you look, he's there leading the charge with his trademark grin. He's fronting the year-long Messiaen Festival in London, while leading a similar push in France, and he's about to front the Aldeburgh Festival as artistic director. Last year, the 50-year-old devised and led a highly original concert series at New York's Carnegie Hall, while doing a similar job in Vienna; meanwhile he was officiating as pianist-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic, and as artist-in-residence in Salzburg, Cleveland, and Lucerne, while at the same time holding professorships in Paris and Cologne. So who better to kick off both the 2008 London Proms?

Aimard has been busy in the studio too, releasing a steady stream of award-winning recordings – of Mozart, Schumann, Debussy, Ravel, Ives, and Ligeti, for whose ferociously complex "Etudes" he was the original test-pilot; his recording of Bach's "The Art of Fugue", meanwhile, has just topped the charts of both iTunes' and Billboard's classical downloads. But his pre-eminence as a pianist is only half the story: the other half lies in the remarkable mentors he has attached himself to, and the connections he makes between art forms which might seem at first to have nothing in common.

When Aimard plays excerpts from "The Art of Fugue" at Aldeburgh next month, for example, he will intersperse them with the cutting-edge experimentalism of György Kurtag's "Jatekok" ("Games"). Previously, the pianist was invited to stage an event at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, at which he decided to make a present to his mentor György Ligeti: a live concert by a Pygmy percussion ensemble, together with his own performance of pieces Ligeti had written under their inspiration. Thus he revealed the remarkable equivalence between the music of the equatorial forests, and that of sophisticated European Modernism.

One of his ongoing partnerships is with Alfred Brendel: originally they both played, with Brendel also reading his surreal poems, but since the older pianist no longer plays in public, Aimard does the keyboard honours as Brendel recites. But look at the two men's faces and you see something strange: they share the same sad-clown gaze. The deeper you delve into Aimard's story, the more you see this father-son dynamic repeated.

"I was never a wunderkind," he insists with that eager simplicity that marks all his utterances – but that is how he must always have come across. Aimard was a precocious infant pianist, and when his parents – both doctors with an experimental cast of mind – sent him to an equally experimental teacher, his musical horizons were set wide: the result was that he felt as at home with the 20th century as with Baroque, and was playing Schoenberg at eight. "I was passionately curious about his music," he says. "And I loved reading new music on the page. All my pocket money went on scores – first it was Beethoven's string quartets, then Boulez's Second Sonata, then an endless succession of increasingly complex works." As a 12-year-old at the Paris Conservatoire, he specialised in harmony, counterpoint, and all the multifarious activities required for an operatic coach, and it was there that he began to study with Yvonne Loriod, through whom he got to know her husband, the composer Olivier Messiaen.

"They didn't have children," Aimard recalls, "so they decided to make me their adoptive son. I toured with them and turned pages for them. His musical language became my mother tongue, even more than that of Bach and Mozart." But it isn't that now: he admits there is a "problem" with Messiaen's music. "Unlike Beethoven, who welds all his elements into a coherent musical argument, Messiaen piles his elements on top of each other – birdsong, bells, Gregorian chant and rhythmic speculation – and leaves us to make what sense we can." But he's carrying the Messiaen torch this year because, despite this reservation, he still venerates his music.

After Aimard had spent his teens winning prizes and taking the Messiaen gospel to the unlikeliest places – and often on terrible pianos – another guru took a shine to him: Pierre Boulez. The composer had been looking for a pianist to help launch his Ensemble Intercontemporain, and installed the 19-year-old as his resident soloist. This, Aimard says, "felt like an invitation to work with God himself", and it made him an adoptive son once more.

Aimard has never done things the easy way. Despite the fact that Kurtág was then known for little except his terrifying temper, he made repeated pilgrimages to be humiliated in his studio in Budapest. He then sought out Ligeti for more of the same. "Ligeti can be terrible to his interpreters," Aimard once told me. "If he thinks they have played his music badly, he explains why, and tells them to play it no more. He once came on stage at the end of a concert and told me to play a particular study again, because I had not played it fast enough – yet it was already almost impossibly fast." Moments like that, he adds with masochistically shining eyes, were "fantastically, magnificently enriching".

Asked how he approaches rebarbative music of this sort, he gives an oblique reply: "It's actually less difficult than Bach. You have to take a lot of time to learn Ligeti's language, but once you can speak it, it's so obvious. I look at the whole score in silence. My first goal is to catch the whole form, and to find the right body response – not just the response of the ear and the brain, because the hands are just the tools. I don't at first hear individual notes, which are merely the surface. They wait till later." He adds that this practice must be carried out little and often: "If you spend six unbroken hours on a Ligeti study, it can drive you mad."

Aimard seems unusually sane by the standards of his eccentric profession, but he draws strength from Zen ("my secret garden") and from the fact that, since hitting burn-out at 26, he's scrupulously paced his development. He also takes comfort from the career of that doyen of American composers, Elliott Carter, some of whose works he will play at the Proms, and who is still composing in his 100th year. "Carter didn't find his voice till he was in his sixties. I've just turned 50, which is a good age for a pianist. I have a lot of memory, but still a lot of freshness, and my fingers are still strong."

The Aldeburgh Festival, 13-29 June, 01728 687 110, BBC Proms, 18 July-13 Sept; bookings from Tuesday: 0845 401 5040,

The pick of the Proms

Roger Wright has made such an excellent fist of his first year as director that we are spoilt for choice. Prom 1 has to be top of the list, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing a new work by the centenarian Elliott Carter, plus soprano Karita Mattila singing Strauss's "Four Last Songs", and oboist Nicholas Daniel and organist Wayne Marshall playing Mozart and Messiaen.

Prom 10 brings us the brilliant young Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin in Rachmaninov's First Piano Concerto, while Prom 12 offers Sir John Tomlinson singing arias from Boris Godunov, plus Louis Lortie playing Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto.

In Prom 18, Glyndebourne Festival Opera makes its annual appearance with a rare treat in the form of Monteverdi's Poppaea, starring Alice Coote and Danielle de Niese under the baton of Emmanuelle Haïm, while in Chamber Prom 2 we get more Monteverdi, courtesy of the ace a cappella group I Fagiolini.

Proms 20/21 celebrate Karlheinz Stockhausen with performances of his key works "Gruppen", "Kontakte" and "Stimmung", and Proms 38/39 bring another visit from Daniel Barenboim's politically groundbreaking West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing Haydn, Brahms, Boulez and Stravinsky.

In Prom 68, Vladimir Jurowski is on the podium for Rimsky-Korsakov's "Kashchey the Immortal" and Stravinsky's "Firebird", while in Proms 71 and 72 Bernard Haitink officiates with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler's Sixth Symphony, Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony, a new work by Mark-Anthony Turnage, and Mozart's Piano Concerto No 24, with that peerless Mozartian Murray Perahia at the keyboard. MC