The very model of a modernist

To celebrate the 75th birthday of Pierre Boulez, grand old man of serialism, 12 composers have been commissioned to write pieces. Michael Church talks to the two pianists who are interpreting those works
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The Independent Culture

With the promise of an instant CD, Sunday's recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall would be newsworthy enough. But the programme makes it doubly so: birthday tributes to Pierre Boulez, composed at top speed by 12 hard-line modernists, and delivered by an intrepid young pianist after minimal rehearsal time.

When I looked in on that pianist, Rolf Hind, two weeks ago, he'd still not seen all he was going to have to deal with. Nothing from Luciano Berio or Harrison Birtwistle, nor any indication of the lines along which they were thinking. The piece from Gyorgy Kurtag had just arrived, and Hind was contemplating its dense pages - black with notes, covered with expression-marks - in perplexity. How did it seem to him?

"I wouldn't want to say on the record. I haven't tried it on the piano. I'm still trying to work out what the chords are. He wants to meet me next week."

The pieces Hind had had time to absorb were typically clever, with those by Elliott Carter and York Höller both beginning with encryptions of the dedicatee's name. "Wolfgang Rihm's has a joke which I don't yet get, and there's a point in the middle where I'm supposed to fall asleep over a B-flat major chord. George Benjamin is the only one who has incorporated "Happy birthday to you", but so discreetly I didn't notice at first."

Hind was relieved to be able to report that so far he liked them all, and that they would, in aggregate, show there's still life in the grand tradition.

This laid-back London-German may not be a household name, but he's a celebrity in new-music circles, where his questing mind and formidable powers have made him every composer's dream test-pilot. He's not even fazed by that sacred monster Gyorgy Ligeti, many of whose awesomely difficult studies he has premiered here. When I ask him how he approaches such music, his reply is unexpected.

"I mark up the score with every dynamic, and every different articulation, in a different colour, and sometimes write nonsense poetry along the lines. Often it's so dense that you have to bring its shape out this way. The first Ligeti study I did took me for ever." Learning such pieces, he says, is initially a physical matter for the fingers: intuitive grasp comes later. "With each one, there comes a point where the brain can suddenly handle it. Like when you're learning a language in an unfamiliar script, as I've found in learning Hindi."

Music for Hind may include Björk, but it goes no further back than Debussy and Ravel. He was a noted Beethovenist as a student, but now finds that Titan's music "inappropriate": "I have the same problem with him as I do with classical ballet. It's all a matter of striking poses and attitudes. And, though this may sound strange coming from a new-music player, I find a lot of Beethoven extremely ugly - C major chords at opposite ends of the piano - hideous! OK, he was deaf, but you'd think he'd remember the sound." The way forward, he says, lies with Boulez. "Exploration, newness, music exquisitely heard, and made, and tinkered with." All aboard for Sunday afternoon.

I first saw Pierre-Laurent Aimard when he was doing a double-act with Alfred Brendel - Brendel reading his poems, Aimard at the piano - and I couldn't believe it. Here, facing Brendel, was Brendel's quizzical grin and round sad-clown eyes: like a conjuror, the older pianist seemed to have created a young replica of himself, to replicate his work. The Frenchman may have hurled himself about the keyboard more than his Moravian mentor, but the event still felt miraculous.

To meet Aimard in person is like meeting a miraculous child. He may be in his forties, but he still has the eager simplicity of Saint-Exupéry's Petit Prince. It's easy to see why Messiaen and his wife made him their "adoptive son" when he was 12, and why at 19 he induced Boulez to install him as resident pianist for the brand new Ensemble InterContemporain. There's something luminous about him, an unworldliness you instinctively trust.

Boulez's invitation, he says, was "the opportunity to work with God himself", and in this year of Boulez festivities, Aimard has taken a leading role, devising concerts and seminars across Europe. So it's appropriate that he should kick off the composer's South Bank birthday bash. With regard to Boulez's music, he believes there is missionary work to be done. "It's not loved or understood as it needs to be. There's a secret dimension to it. Unlike Messiaen, where what you hear is exactly and obviously the message, the music of Boulez has layers upon layers, which you must discover slowly, step by step. He dislikes being completely understood on a first hearing - which gives the interpreter special responsibility."

But interpretation was always Aimard's obsession. "Even when I was very young, I loved reading music, especially music I didn't know - I read it as I read novels. At the end of a day of studying I would bring music home to read - all my pocket-money went on it. First it was Beethoven's String Quartets, then Boulez's second sonata, then a succession of increasingly complex works. By the time I was 12, Messaien's language had become my musical mother-tongue."

Aimard, too, has gravitated to Ligeti's works, sometimes premiering them in France before Rolf Hind brought them to Britain. He too has developed his own peculiar technique for grappling with music of this rebarbative sort. "You have to discover first what kind of virtuosity the music demands, and find the body-language. Liszt's virtuosity requires one sort of body-language, Ligeti's another. First 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 - trying to hear them too soon can be an obstacle to understanding."

The way Aimard describes this process makes it sound improbably easy, so it's nice to find his teachers are mystified too. Maria Curcio, through whom Aimard traces his pedigree back to her tutor Arthur Schnabel, was dazzled from the start. "When Pierre-Laurent first came to me and played Beethoven's Op 22," she says, "I immediately sensed both his profound musicality and his very special brain. Truly there is genius in him. For him, the most difficult modern music is easy - he can read through the most complex score as other people read a simple sonatina. He hears it as he sees it - the eye and the hand and the brain work together."