Pierre-Laurent Aimard Programs Birds, Ideas, and Modernist Brilliance

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Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs at Pleasant Valley as part of BSO collaboration with Mass Audubon Society. Photo Hilary Scott.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs at Pleasant Valley as part of BSO collaboration with Mass Audubon Society. Photo Hilary Scott.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard Programs Birds, Ideas, and Modernist Brilliance

Thursday July 27: solo piano recital including works by Daquin, Schumann, Ravel, Anderson, Bartok, and Messiaen

Saturday July 29: concerto appearance with the Boston Symphony
Charles Dutoit conductor
Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand
Stravinsky’s Chant Funèbre
Berlioz’s Te Deum

As Pierre Boulez’s “house pianist” at Ensemble Intercontemporain for many years, Pierre-Laurent Aimard could have been expected to be very brainy, in command of the most complex and challenging modern scores, with an artistic temperament on the cool side, eschewing virtuosic display and temperament. His deep insight into contemporary music has been amply demonstrated in his many past Tanglewood appearances, but may give the impression that he is a specialist in this area. This would be mistaken. As demonstrated in recordings and in these concerts, his virtues as a musician benefit a wide-ranging repertory, including (in his solo recital) the baroque Louis-Claude Daquin, the romantic Robert Schumann, and the earlier 20th century Maurice Ravel. While the coherently assembled solo recital program demonstrated several connecting links among its components (other than bird-song), it also made clear that Ravel’s music embodies an aesthetic that is as much romantic as modern.

The romantic side of Ravel was also demonstrated by the performance of the concerto on Saturday. It was actually strengthened by Aimard’s almost self-effacing style of performance, which directs all the attention to the music itself, and particularly to its sonorous qualities, its colors, and its acoustic shapes. The emotional content of the music emerged from the pianist’s powerful concentration and technical skill in revealing the colors of the harmonies while maintaining a lucid and superbly balanced texture through differentiated touch. But self-effacing is not the same as low-key or withdrawn. Rather than calling attention to himself or to his particular interpretive approach, Aimard put all the emphasis on the music itself, and it was clear that he thinks about each piece in a multi-dimensional way, including its acoustic and timbral qualities, its expressive and philosophical content, and the way a program offers it a meaningful context. This includes the great Ravel concerto, whose bravura passage-work (enhanced by the built-in restriction to a single hand) plays a vital structural role in the ingeniously constructed single-movement form. Aimard understood and delivered the full measure of virtuosity in the solo passages, but also worked in partnership with the members of the orchestra whose superb solo and ensemble work played an equal role in the unfolding of this powerful drama. Another index of Aimard’s interest in providing audiences with new vistas of experience was his choice of post-concerto encore. Traditionally this is a place for something familiar to contrast; the danger is that the musical choice can undercut the impact of the previous work.1 Aimard took an opposite tactic: his encore was a startlingly modernist, apparently abstract work, Pierre Boulez’s Notations 4, that at first threatened to offer listeners a tough nut to crack; but Aimard’s performance was so lucid, powerful, and visceral that it ended up eliciting cheers of amazement and delight.

In Thursday’s recital, Aimard prefaced each work with a discussion of diverse ways that bird-song functioned as inspiration or source for each composition, offering a thoughtful way for the audience to hear the program as an integrated whole. At the same time, he presented it as an experiment, allowing listeners room to hear in their own way, and even apologized for playing the Daquin on the wrong instrument. It would not have occurred to me to think of Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds) as an evocation of human fear in the face of a natural environment (as he proposed) but that perspective stimulated a closer and more thoughtful experience of the work, highlighting the textural interplay between the bird-calls and their resonances in an implied space that can plausibly be heard as sinister.

Aimard’s assertion about Schumann’s Der Vogel als Prophet (“The Bird as Prophet”) was also thought-provoking: that it was not about a real bird at all (nor did it allude to an identifiable bird) but rather was about the composer as poet-prophet, singing of the future in cryptic and dissonance-laden harmonies. His interpretation effectively highlighted the work’s mysterious and inconclusive character.

The inclusion of Bartók’s great and less-often heard Out of Doors suite was a brilliant way to provide contrast without irrelevance: here, human sounds projected in a natural setting provided the connection with the bird-song pieces, with only one out of five sections (“The night’s music”) indicating the sounds of nature itself. The other sections (“With drums and pipes…,” “Barcarolla,” “Musettes,” and “Chase”) offered original “Bartókian’ commentary on traditional subject matter, meaning his rhythmic and harmonic language shifted the perspective from an affectionate-sentimental one (think about Chopin’s Barcarolle) to a more distanced and ironic take on these activities, as if seen through the eyes of Breughel rather than Watteau.

If Aimard’s verbal commentary helped to knit together the individual works into a larger whole, the solo recital itself was also designed to be part of a larger fabric, including events at the Pleasant Valley Audubon Society bird sanctuary where the pianist had performed several of Messiaen’s Catalogue des Oiseaux very early the same day (7 am!). This was to be followed by similar performances in that place and time on Friday and Saturday by Tanglewood piano students that would constitute a complete traversal of this monumental work in an acoustic environment that would bring audiences closer to the source material from which Messiaen himself worked, actual birdsong. (This reviewer was not dedicated enough to get to even one, not to mention three early morning events.)

The second half of the recital consisted of three works, each preceded by a recording of the song of the featured bird: the curlew, the tawny owl, and the woodlark. Hearing this in Ozawa Hall, a venue in which one is already used to hearing birds before, during and after every performance was particularly effective: experiencing their songs prior to the musical setting reoriented one’s listening toward recognizing their shape and character when they returned as transformed by Messiaen into music for the piano.

The Catalogue consists of the thirteen works of ample dimensions organized into seven books. The second and third pieces that Aimard performed constitute book three and are relatively smaller in scale, illustrating contrasting aspects of night-time, threatening (harking back to Ravel) and peaceful (ditto to Bartók). The opening of his set is the concluding work of the Catalogue, Le courlis centré (The curlew), a fresco-like work that also illustrates the bird’s environment, the coast-line of France.

Messiaen the mystic Catholic famously declared that his love of bird-song entailed his belief that their vocalizations were the closest thing accessible to humans to the voice of God. But there is something almost naïvely programmatic about the impulse behind these pieces: to capture the songs and their environments objectively rather than to offer personal refractions of them à la Schumann. Such an impulse was honored by the context of the program, and especially by the inclusion of actual bird-song; but it did not preclude the possibility of listening in a more subjective way, allowing the wonderful colors and spaces of the music to suggest whatever strikes the listener. Messaien’s harmonies owe nothing to traditional tonality, although his wide repertory of materials includes chords and scales that may momentarily sound familiar. His penchant for chordal textures and intervals like tritones and sevenths is motivated by the original sonic spectra they generate, setting off clusters of higher harmonics that create new colors, as if one is hearing the voice of a new instrument, suggested by the voice of the bird in question. Hearing in this way requires a reorientation from the listener, one that Aimard’s color-sensitivity, fantastic control of touch, and profound commitment to the composer’s unique aesthetic gently facilitated.

  1. In my review of a Vienna Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall, I faulted Daniel Barenboim for following a (poor) performance of Schoenberg’s audience-challenging Piano Concerto with a sugary performance of a Schubert Impromptu, giving the unhelpful message that the audience had eaten their vegetables and was now going to get some well-earned dessert.
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