Pierre-Laurent Aimard may be 53, but he still comes across like the miraculous child he was when Messiaen made him his adoptive son.
He read complex musical scores the way other small boys read comics, and as his pianistic gifts grew brighter, he was taken up first by Boulez and then by Ligeti, who made him the test-pilot for scores of dubious playability. George Benjamin – another Messaien-devotee – has written works for Aimard to premiere, so it was fitting that Aimard should now return the compliment by opening with one of Benjamin’s most intricate scores.
‘Fantasy on Iambic Rhythm for Piano’ is just that: a piece of musical free-association in which a phrase with a limping pulse is put through a series of dizzying transformations. The way Aimard played it, one sensed still deeps beneath its busily emphatic surface; a melody emerged – atonal but quite graceful - with the climax coming in an explosion of triumphant chords. Aimard finished this in a frozen attitude, fist upraised, creating an atmosphere of cold impressiveness.
This was dissipated by the most bewitching performance of Ravel’s ‘Miroirs’ I have ever heard. This suite is at the same time entirely about the piano and also a supreme example of musical impressionism, and what Aimard did with it was magical. For each tone-poem – the darting nocturnal moths, the sleeping birds, the boat on the ocean – he conjured up a different sound-world, using a completely different touch; ‘The valley of the bells’ had a wonderfully misty expressiveness.
But if this is now Aimard’s home territory, the Chopin which followed clearly isn’t. He delivered the ‘Berceuse’ with a striking absence of seductiveness, though his rock-steady tempo and bright clarity of tone showed the piece in an interesting new light. But he totally missed the point of the second Scherzo, into which he segued without a break. Its first grand gesture seemed brisk and businesslike, rather than heroic, and so it was throughout: this great musical utterance emerged shorn of all its drama and poetry.
Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ variations reflect a Herculean creativity furiously straining to burst its bonds. With Aimard at the helm, every stage in this work’s crazy journey had its craziness intensified: no wonder he wasn’t in the mood to give an encore.