Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Michael Church
Friday 11 November 2011 01:00
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There is always a subtext when Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays a recital, but it is seldom as resonant as the one underlying his two linked concerts at the Southbank. It is based on an album called The Liszt Project, in which he juxtaposes piano works by Liszt with 20th-century works reflecting the prophetic nature of his music.

Aimard sees this in a variety of ways, from Liszt's pioneering of the sonata in one movement to his exploitation of forbidden harmonies and his invention of free-floating and ever-shifting tonalities. He is particularly excited by Liszt's proto-impressionism, which led to what he calls Ravel's pointillism and to the synaesthesia – melding of sound and colour – indulged in by Scriabine and Messiaen.

Aimard began his first recital with Liszt's "threnody" – lamentation – "Aux cyprès de la Villa d'Este", in which the stately procession of chords and long melodic lines came majestically across, with Aimard giving every phrase maximum expressiveness. He then segued into a rarity by Bartok – "Nenie"– which inhabited the same sound-world but didn't have Liszt's poetry. Then he steered into Liszt's "St François d'Assise", giving the opening an exquisite suggestiveness and gradually filling out Liszt's magical tableau of preacher, choir, and birds.

Next stop, "Tangata manu" by Marco Stroppa. This was clearly influenced not only by Liszt, but by its composer's background in cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence: cleverly post-tonal, intermittently euphonious, but without any discernible point. It was a relief to dive into Liszt's "Les jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este", followed by Ravel's lovely reworking of the idea, Aimard creating textures of dazzling beauty.

Then came a piece from Messiaen's "Catalogue d'oiseaux" to show another stage in the apostolic succession. The composer's commentary was illustrated by a long string of bird calls, but it was all too strenuously literal. And by rounding off this heroic recital with a return to its roots – Liszt's magnificent "Vallée d'Obermann" – Aimard rammed home a point he surely hadn't intended. "Progress" in musical evolution often means a step backwards, with the "future" trumped by the past.

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