Monday, May 28th, 2007 7:55am
…-Laurent Aimard, that is (no offense, Mr. Boulez). In the microcosm that is new music, there are some radiant figures. One of them is a pianist occupying space in my mind (and undoubtedly in the minds of others) these days: the venerable Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
Aimard (you can read his full bio here) first appeared on my radar screen while I was a doctoral student at Northwestern in the late 90s, studying with Ursula Oppens. It was in Ursula’s “Piano Music Since 1945” class that I became aware of György Ligeti’s Piano Études. There were a small handful of recordings at the time. One was by Volker Banfield, to whom the first etude, Désordre, is dedicated; but the disc everyone seemed to be listening to was Aimard’s. Ligeti’s music was so fascinating that I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to Aimard’s pianism, brilliant as it is in that recording. I was marveling at the inventive and utterly fearless way that Ligeti uses patterns - rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic patterns - layering and overlapping them so that they seem to take on a life of their own, interacting in a way that is joyful, eclectic, and profound.
Several years later (2002, if memory serves me), I heard Aimard play a solo recital at Symphony Center, an ultra-marathon of a program that began with short works of Ravel and Debussy, moved through music of the Second Viennese School and the post-war era, to the present. Personal highlights from this concert, which lasted three hours (not including intermission) were Ondine from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, Helmut Lachenmann’s Guero (the performer scrapes along the white and black keys with the fingernails, except that Aimard used credit cards, to better project in the large hall), a very special version of John Cage’s 4’33”, in which Aimard’s illuminating spoken introduction to the piece lasted precisely 4’33”, allowing him to deliver that news and move neatly on to the next piece (to sighs of relief from the audience)…and of course, those Ligeti Études. I remember that there were two, and one was the formidable L’Escalier du Diable. I came away from this concert stunned, moved, inspired, a tad suicidal, and positively itching to get home to the piano.
Much to my regret, I missed what seems to have been the recital of the century: Aimard’s performance (from memory) of the entire Vingt Regards of Olivier Messiaen. This concert happened sometime between 2003 and 2005 (anyone want to help me out here?), when I was living in San Diego and was only back in Chicago to play concerts, a few times a season. From all accounts (and I have heard many), it was a concert that changed lives. Several friends confided that it was the best concert they had ever attended. Damn!
I was fortunate to hear Aimard a few times over the last two seasons. One was a solo recital that featured Debussy, Kurtag, Ravel, and Schumann; another was the amazing Ligeti Concerto with Boulez conducting. His most recent recital, just a few weeks ago, with pianist Tamara Stefanovich and percussionists Daniel Ciampolini and Joseph Gramley was true to form. In this last concert, Aimard played a highly skilled game of connect-the-dots, drawing a sonic thread between works of Peter Eötvös, György Kurtag, Steve Reich, Conlon Nancarrow, György Ligeti, and Béla Bartók. The next-to-last set, which began with Reich’s Clapping Music and moved through some Nancarrow Studies for Player Piano to a couple of Ligeti Études, was especially effective for me. He exposed a subtle rhythmic progression through the set, while introducing some new things – a spin-off of Ligeti’s Symphonic Poem for 100 Metronomes, arranged for piano eight hands; and his use of an improvising percussionist (Ciampolini) on two of the Ligeti études (Fem and Fanfares). If I had any reservations, it was with these versions of the études. I wanted to hear every crisp note, every layer, and, for me, the percussion obscured the clarity of Ligeti’s writing. On the other hand, it was a creative way to present repertoire…identifying a rhythmic idea, feeling it out, adding to it, taking it where it will go.
If it’s not already apparent, here’s why Pierre-Laurent Aimard is my favorite pianist on the scene today: he makes the music speak for itself. With Aimard, (to steal a phrase from Jonathan Safran Foer) “Everything is Illuminated.” In his performances one hears the clarity, intention, and integrity of the score (oh yeah, have I mentioned that he has great taste in music?). His technique is formidable, but his appeal as an artist is not about dazzling virtuosity or showmanship. It’s not about image, or marketing, or hype. Aimard has been called the “thinking man’s pianist”, and I do not disagree with that classification. It’s clear that he has a deep intellectual understanding of this music and the skill to bring it across. But I would add that his intense emotional connection and commitment to this music is what make his interpretations exciting, illuminating, and joyful to witness.