wed 22/11/2017

Catalogue d'Oiseaux, Aimard, Aldeburgh Festival | reviews, news & interviews

Catalogue d'Oiseaux, Aimard, Aldeburgh Festival

Catalogue d'Oiseaux, Aimard, Aldeburgh Festival

Birds, Messiaen and a much-loved artistic director dazzle from dawn to midnight

Pierre-Laurent Aimard performing Messiaen at dusk, RSPB MinsmereThis and all indoor images by Matt Jolly

"He is one of the few pianists who will not make them sound like angry birds," said young pianist-animateur Víkingur Ólafsson in Reykjavík when I told him that in little over 24 hours' time I'd be hearing Pierre-Laurent Aimard work his way through Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux at dawn, in the afternoon and evening and close to midnight at the Aldeburgh Festival. Of course there are a few ferocious birdcalls in the craggier of Messiaen's landscapes, but Vikingur was right: a more lucid, rhythmically alert and, where necessary, hypnotically even performance of this music you will never hear. Nor can the circumstances ever be reproduced.

As lecturer and Messiaen expert Christopher Dingle pointed out before the 11pm finale, "Catalogue" is a terrible word to use for the title. It's not about obsessive ornothological collecting; this is hardly music on any spectrum other than the rainbow. The composer engages 77 bird calls in 13 pieces, deceptively titled to refer to one bird where there's a whole avian procession in a series of evocative scenes. The times of day are crucial, and rather than follow Messiaen's symmetrical sequence grouped into seven books, Aimard imaginatively reordered it according to 24 hours in the birdlife of Snape's and Minsmere's marshes.

Snape marshes at 3.30am

We were out there behind the Maltings at 3.30am, witnessing the first glow and the dawn chorus (pictured above: 45 minutes before sunrise). Less spectacular than it might be in May, perhaps, but the distant persistence of a cuckoo and the discreet twittering in the reed beds as well as the ever-changing light on a dry day between rains made it a unique experience. I later learnt from Dingle and his co-presenter, ornithologist Nigel Collar, that the unexpected stridulation I heard was made by the Grasshopper Warbler, whose sound we would hear reproduced in the very last programme of the day as a soft clattery trill at the extreme high end of the piano register.

So to the oyster bar, where it was more important to face the marsh beyond than to watch Aimard (pictured below) in his first group of three. The sun rose through the window just beyond the piano space 10 minutes into Traquet Stapazin (Black-eared Wheatear); a couple of egrets flashed into sight towards the end of Traquet Rieur (Black Wheatear).

Aimard at the Oyster Bar, Snape Maltings, 4.30am

These were not, perhaps, the most striking of the 13 pieces, though they introduced us to the essential balance between slow, meditative chords and the harmonised birdcalls. Those are among the elements which make this a creative view and not a "catalogue" of ornithological accuracy. Messiaen's process often went through three or four notations from nature to score; he also took a lot from recordings, as recent research has revealed.

The high noon and heart of the sequence was indisputably in the lunchtime recital, in the perfect acoustics of the Britten Studio to a totally silent and attentive audience with the windows behind Aimard looking out on a wind-waved tree, apparently devoid of birds. Le Loriot (Golden Oriole) is of at least double significance, a lovesong to the pianist Yvonne Loriod with whom Messiaen had fallen in love and who was Aimard's teacher.

"The sun itself is the emanation of the oriole's golden song," writes the composer in one of his piquant introductions (shame we were deprived of the full action in the programme book's selection, which would lead you to believe that each piece is the portrait of only one bird when many feature). The birds twitter ecstatically in some of Messiaen's toughest writing; the sun rises and blazes in a Debussyan progression towards radiant E major. Aimard triumphed here, and shook the foundations with elemental but always controlled thunder in the numbers around the centrepiece. None would have been appropriate at dawn; here they reached their natural zenith.

Aimard in the Britten Studio, 1pm

If the time between the dawn and afternoon recitals (pictured above) had lent itself to sleep, the next break offered the option of a trip to Blythburgh Church with its angel roof to hear King's College Choir. But by then it felt as treacherous to desert the bird-steeped experience in favour of a different musical sphere as breaking up a Bayreuth Ring in 1991 to hear Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in Salzburg. I didn't go to either of the disruptions, too much immersed in the spirit of each epic, and this time took an afternoon bathe off Aldeburgh beach beneath screaming seagulls, the only birds who don't seem to sleep.

Then it was off to Minsmere (pictured below), the RSPB's flagship site responsible for reintroducing the avocet, the organisation's signature bird, for a risky al fresco experience on Whin Hill. If Messiaen was leading many of us back to ornithological studies, this major sponsor seemed to have brought plenty of twitchers to Messiaen in an audience which remained varied throughout the day.

Aimard at Minsmere

Dark clouds rolled slowly in and there were a few spots of rain, but it held off until two hours later in what turned out to be a perfect window of a day. Bird sightings down at one of the hides had been relatively sparse, though the bittern, whose low boom I longed to hear, had been spotted four times up to 1.45pm. Only blackbirds and rooks responded to the amplified piano, but that's always a big "only"; Messiaen archly described blackbirds as "our little servants of immaterial joy". On the previous evening, a lady coming out of the Aldeburgh Cinema and seeing me rapt beneath an alpha blackbird’s resourceful song on the scaffoiding of a house opposite asked if was a nightingale; no, I replied, but there was no need for disappointment.

First up at Minsmere was the chromatic rock face for the Alpine Chough and its mountain companions, the toughest of the sequence; last, to my mind the most poetic of all – and placed at the end of the original sequence – Le Courlis Cendre, the Curlew. The piano, so ideal for the rapid repetitive notes of birdsong, can't do direct reproduction of glissandi like the curlew's, but Messiaen's solution is so imaginative, upward swirls against haunting minor chords in the bass. Lying on a picnic blanket in meditative mood, I jumped out of my skin at the first sounding of the Finistere foghorn which Messiaen so dramatically incorporates into his Breton landscape.

Midnight concert with Aimard

Too early to hear the Minsmere nightingales, we were bussed back to Snape, the talk and the grand finale (pictured above). Seats had been removed from the Britten Studio; most of us lay on the floor or on mats in the dark with the only light on the piano. Again, this was no easy night meditation. After the scary owls of La Chouette Hulotte and the sustained midnight reverie of L'Alouette Lulu (the Woodcock), Aimard chose to end with the longest catalogue-cum-evocation of them all, central to the original and the most apt paraphrase of our day's natural experience going back to that magical dawn: La Rousserolle Effarvate (Reed Warbler), Messiaen taking us through a 27-hour marsh odyssey with more fabulous, rolling rhythmic complexity effortlessly handled by Aimard along the way. He reciprocated the standing ovation (pictured below) with applause for the long-termers and a kiss planted on his last score of the day.

Aimard finale

Our own journey had taken 21 hours, but even after all that it wasn't easy to sleep, and I'll be digesting the experience long after this review. In his last year as Artistic Director before he hands over to Roger Wright – and he has no intention of bowing out completely from the place he loves so much – this most affable and courteous of pianists has pulled off an epic as magnificent in its way as Grimes on the Beach. Unrepeatable, unforgettable.

Aimard imaginatively reordered Messiaen's sequence according to 24 hours in the local marshes' birdlife

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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