Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Lighthouse, Poole

Beyond the Looney Tunes and aftershave...Aimard finds Liszt's retiring side

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The Independent Culture

Man of letters, man of the world, man (almost) of the cloth.

Visionary, virtuoso, vulgarian. Eleven months into Franz Liszt's anniversary year, the lavender fumes of legend still obscure the music.

For every bar of the sublime, there are 20 more of exhausting silliness: the glycerined lachrymosity of Liebestraum No 3, the Looney Tunes excess of Totentanz, the too-much-aftershave clinch of the Mephisto Waltz, the grotesque cannonade of the Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H. This is pianism Las Vegas-style, all pan-cake and rhinestones. Or is it?

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, that most cerebral of pianists, has chosen an unusual path for his Liszt anniversary project, reassessing the most flamboyant of Romantics through the works of those he influenced in two recital programmes. Aside from the Becher's Brook of the B-minor Sonata, which Aimard tackles next month with Wagner, Berg and Scriabin, his Liszt is the poet and diarist: painter of cypress shadows, water, sunlight and birdsong. The chosen works are impressionistic and introverted, or as introverted as Liszt gets. Thus the sculptural darkness of Aux cyprès de la Villa d'Este, Thrénodie leads to Bartok's sepulchral dirge Nénie, and the tulle-and-bead arpeggios of Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este lead to Ravel's Jeux d'eau.

Much as Gianandrea Noseda brought Italianate warmth and refinement to his recordings of Liszt's Symphonic Poems with the BBC Philharmonic, Aimard brings an unmistakably French suavity to the piano music. Crisply voiced, transparent, expertly weighted in its slow-blooming, melancholy beauty, Tuesday's exercise in time travel and shared textures betrayed a sense that, for Aimard, the interest shown in Liszt by the living composers he most respects had persuaded him into territory he would otherwise not explore. In the eight works in his unbroken 75-minute sequence, the most striking juxtapositions were between Liszt's Légende No 1: St François d'Assise and Marco Stroppa's Tangata manu, and between Messaien's Le Traquet stapazin and Liszt's Vallée d'Obermann. Here was art and artlessness, ecstasy and awe. The Liszt was clear, controlled and grave. But Stroppa's celestial cascades and sudden Beethovenian sparks of flint, and Messaien's liquid birdsong sound easy under Aimard's fingers where Liszt sounds difficult, self-concious. Aimard, I feel, is a great musician who happens to be a pianist. Liszt, I fear, was a great pianist who happened to compose.

While Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia took their thrilling semi-staging of Duke Bluebeard's Castle to Dortmund and Vienna, Kirill Kara

bits and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra peeped behind the sixth door of the castle in the third movement of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. Thirty-two years and several thousand miles separate the two works, but the lake of tears remains central to both. Between the veiled violins of the elegy and the sinister crawling of cello and bass that open the concerto, it is almost as though Bartok were trying on Stravinsky's clothes. The fit is only so-so. Karabits has some peculiar mannerisms on the podium but the sound he has developed since he took over the BSO is magnetic. The blend is robust, the playing suspenseful even in the most static music. I'd love to hear them play the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

It was a remarkable journey from the chaotic blur of Brahms's Hungarian Dance No 1. Sound clears slowly in the Lighthouse, smearing the textures into a careless, louche glamour. Soloist Viviane Hagner responded instinctively to the acoustic dangers in her performance of Brahms's Violin Concerto, reserving the sweetest and most intense vibrato for the highest passages, stripping her tone back for the low moan of the double-stopped suspensions. This was a daring and dynamic reading, turbulent and truthful, warmed by Bourne-mouth's handsome harmonie band of horns and woodwind. I've heard violinists with cleaner intonation, but not a Brahms with such variety and specificity of sound and attack, or such profound emotional engagement.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (0844 847 9929), 7 Dec

Next Week:

Anna Picard notches up three heartbreaks in Deborah Warner's new production of Eugene Onegin

Classical Choice

Paul Lewis plays Schubert's Impromptus (D935), Moments Musicaux and Wanderer Fantasy at London's Wigmore Hall (Tue & Thu). Robin Ticciati conducts Karen Cargill and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Les Nuits d'été, the Overture to Gluck's Alceste and Schumann's Symphony No 2, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh (Thu), City Halls, Glasgow (Fri).