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Music review: Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Disney Concert Hall

December 2, 2010 |  2:03 pm

Aimard Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the protean French pianist, sat, as protean pianists often do, in a pool of light on the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage Wednesday night. The set-up -- dimmed theater, midnight blue lighting in the upper reaches, purple shadows projected on the organ pipes -– suited him very well. The audience may have been in the dark, unable to read the program, but Aimard is a pianist of illumination and color. He makes everything he plays clear and vibrant.

The recital began with Messiaen’s earliest piano music, Préludes, eight colorful character pieces written in 1929 when the French composer was 19 and still in the thrall of Impressionism, and the program moved backward through time after intermission with Ravel and Chopin. Aimard will present this same recital in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago over the next few days.

Aimard played splendidly at Disney Hall. There was little surprise there. He made a marvelous Messiaen CD two years ago, which includes the “Préludes,” as tribute to a composer to whom he had been close. He has a marvelous new recording of Ravel’s “Miroirs,” also early character pieces.

Typically, Aimard made interesting connections between pieces he played. Messiaen was from the start a bird fancier. His first prelude is “La Colombe” (The Dove). The second of Ravel’s “Miroirs” is “Oiseaux Tristes” (Sad Birds). The third, “Une Barque sur l’Océan” (A Boat on the Ocean), led nicely to Chopin’s Barcarolle.

Yet for Aimard the program seemed a worrisome conceit to convention. He is, after all, a pianist who has such an extraordinary repertory in his fingers that he used to never repeat himself, never play the same recital program twice.

Moreover, Aimard made his name championing new music. He, of course, illumines old music too,  inventively connecting Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms to our moment in musical time. And this time he turned to Chopin's late Barcarolle and middle period Scherzo No. 2. But an Aimard program without something recent or new, without music written for him, without music you weren’t likely to hear played by anyone else very often, was once unthinkable.

Perhaps Messiaen’s Préludes are still uncommon in Philadelphia or New York. But Gloria Cheng played them at Piano Spheres in September as opulent old music, on a program with recent Boulez, Adès and three world premieres. That was just the kind of recital that Aimard would once give.

Still, Aimard’s sparkling clarity sets its own standards in Messiaen, and his Ravel really is a revelation. “Alborada del Gracioso” (The Fool's Dawn Song), Ravel’s evocation of Spain, startled like shards of cold fire. In “La Vallée des Cloches” (The Valley of Bells), the pianist judged the Disney acoustic perfectly. The distant shimmering chords that pervaded the hall could be heard as harkening the future sonorities of Messiaen’s. That was a magical moment of mixed-up music history.

Aimard’s Chopin was strange. The clarity of textures and his literarly striking rhythmic accuracy were impressive. But Chopin was a unique case in music. His progressiveness was at the service of Romanticism. Remove the Romanticism and the music can sound mannered.

Playing the B-Flat Minor Scherzo with a metallic percussiveness was original and an exciting way to finish. More exciting, in a counter-intuitive way, however, was the single encore -- György Kurtág’s  shadowy, magnetic “Hommage à Berényi Ferenc 70,” mostly somber single notes in the right hand. That was the Aimard of old who was the Aimard of the new.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday evening. Credit: Anne Cusack /Los Angeles Times.
 


 
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