tue 23/04/2024

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, QEH review – taking Ligeti to extremes | reviews, news & interviews

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, QEH review – taking Ligeti to extremes

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, QEH review – taking Ligeti to extremes

Long-standing advocate keeps Ligeti fresh and vibrant, and delivers plenty of surprises

Aimard: master illusionist in LigetiMarco Borggreve DG

After Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s first concert in his weekend Ligeti festival at the Southbank, an innovative programme spanning influential contemporaries and new arrangements, this second was a more canonical affair: the three books of Piano Études presented in recital.

Aimard has been performing the earlier Études for over 30 years, and Ligeti named him as his preferred performer, dedicating two movements of the Second Book to him. Authority is to be expected, then, but how does he keep it fresh?

The answer is: He continues to take risks, and to take the music to extremes. This is music that mixes order and chaos, and Aimard revels in the ambiguity, sliding into metric irregularity at the slightest opportunity. He also holds the composer to his extreme dynamic markings, the thundering climaxes to many of the movements well outside his physical comfort zone.

In a post-concert talk, with Gillian Moore, Aimard discussed how Ligeti uses illusions, particularly the illusion of regularity in irregular music. His performance of the First Étude, “Désordre”, was a case in point: For the first few bars, the short phrases seemed to maintain a strict and simple rhythm, but gradually the cracks started to emerge, the titular disorder revealed as Aimard progressively emphasised the disjointed and increasingly polyrhythmic structure.

The Études revolve around these technical and perceptual devices, but there is plenty of variety, especially in the First Book. In “Touches bloquées”, the left hand depresses keys silently, while the right plays runs in the same register, the depressed keys registering as gaps. But they are not silences, and, as Aimard convincingly demonstrated, the rhythm is carried by the sound of the fingers striking the depressed keys. And there was subtlety too: “Fanfares” employs legato runs in the left hand (irregularly subdivided, of course) to accompany the emphatic right hand melody. The deftness of Aimard’s touch here was perfect, and combined with virtuosic pedal work to delineate those irregular subdivisions. “Automne à Varsovie”, the grand, polymetric finale to the First Book, almost came a cropper due to a page-turning snafu, but Aimard recovered well to bring off a thundering conclusion.

Aimard wisely placed the four diminutive études of the unfinished Third Book between the First and Second. These are interesting works, but are more demure than their predecessors. This is music of old age, and fits uneasily into the continuous invention of the earlier works. But here in the middle, they acted as a kind of central slow movement – relatively slow at least. No 17, “À bout de soufflé” (Breathless), lived up to its title here.

In the Second Book, everything gets more complicated. Ligeti here goes further into ideas derived from fractal geometry, and these more complex ideas require longer works and more sophisticated structuring. But Aimard knows how to keep his listeners onboard, always delivering Ligeti’s conjuring tricks – the clocks that might be clouds, the clouds that might be clocks. Speaking of clouds, there was another spectacular page turning incident mid-way through, Aimard and his page turner engulfed in a flurry of loose pages as they were hurriedly swept from the stand. Aimard’s fault apparently – he had the pages in the wrong order.

From here, the final movements are a gradual progression from one level of unimaginable complexity to the next, and it is no coincidence that these include the two dedicated to Aimard himself. The hard, clean sound of Aimard’s Yamaha piano came into its own here, giving tonal definition and rhythmic attack. The final movement of the Second Book, “Coloana infinită”, like the final movement of the First, requires some real theatre from the pianist, but the gestures – standing and incessantly hammering the top two notes of the piano with the sides of the hands – seemed to come out of the blue. This final gesture highlighted how the spectacular pyrotechnics up to here had been delivered not by some flamboyant, grandstanding virtuoso, but by the demure and level-headed Aimard, a master of detail and a master of perception, delivering the greatest illusion of all.



I wish I could be positive about this concert as I am a great fan of Aimard's recordings and of Ligeti's music, but I can find little good to say about the experience. The awful acoustic of the QEH rendered the loud and even more complicated etudes a meaningless blur and the shambolic page turning coupled with the pianist's moaning, bizarre facial expressions and extremes of performance were just too much to bear.

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