Chamber Prom 1: Schumann, Carter, Messiaen and Bartok

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Cadogan Hall, 21 July 20083.5 stars

Pierre-Laurent AimardPierre-Laurent Aimard opened this year's series of Proms Chamber Music today at Cadogan Hall with an accomplished, if at times a little cold, recital of romantic and modern piano works.

The programme itself was well selected, with late Schumann preceding Elliot Carter, Messiaen and Bartok in a tightly condensed hour of music in which a nocturnal theme was recurrent. The concert was punctual too- strict commencement and conclusion at 1300 and 1400 respectively was surprisingly achieved, and the lack of an encore said more about the integrity of the planning than it did about the performer's achievements (which were well-received throughout).

After Aimard's rip-roaring rendition of the fifth part of Bartok's Out of Doors suite, where a real and consistent sense of excitement and momentum finally complemented the superb musicianship that had already been on show, any encore would have seemed superfluous. The pianist excelled throughout the Bartok in fact; his resonant and tonally rich performance of the fourth provided a nice contrast to the spiky, often menacingly buoyant music that surrounded it. The soft, repeated arpeggio with the clashing minor second at its top that is the fulcrum of the movement always beguiled in this performance, and the hall's slightly crisp acoustics were finally made to sound deep and reverberant. Aimard brought a keen harmonic sense to bear on Bartok's fascinating suite, and the rhythmic energy of the set, particularly in the pulsating third section, was expertly brought to the fore.

The concert began well, with Aimard giving a passionate performance of Schumann's Gesänge der Frühe, Op. 133 that evoked all the drama and innovation that enrich the work. If anything Aimard's interpretation was too precipitous, too dazzling, to truly convey the inner turmoil of the piece; suddenly leaving the bright sunshine of a hot summer day to be presented with this concise late work, it was hard to truly contemplate the inwardness when the dazzle was so overwhelming. However it must be acknowledged that the frequent detours the pianist took into reposeful contemplation were often effective, and the final fading into obscurity, so typical of Schumann yet still a potent rhetorical gesture in a work of this sort, was very well made.

Pierre-Laurent AimardThe brilliant harmonic understanding that Aimard brought to the forward-looking Schumann was again present in his graceful and poised performance of the sixth of Messiaen's portraits of birdsong from the composer's Catalogue d'oiseaux, ‘L'alouette lulu'. Playing largely from memory, the pianist easily managed to overcome the possibility that his mentor's music would come across as inelegant in design (the bare programme of woodlark and nightingale in quiet and calm conversation- depicted in right and left hands of the piano respectively- provides the whole backbone of the piece), by very calmly working through the quotations as if he were the only person in the room. Happily, sensitivity to the material took precedence over occasion. The performance was lovely- by the end a real sense that we were glimpsing a private and yet public nocturnal conversation in some distant forest was unshakable, and peculiar. 

A persistent problem of this concert, frequently overcome but always bubbling under the surface, was the poor projection of the piano's sound into the auditorium. Often Aimard's loudest fortissimos failed to hit their mark, and at times the colourful, sustained harmonies of the Messiaen disappeared as quickly as they had come. The performance of Elliot Carter's Night Fantasies suffered most in these regards. The piece is a somewhat meandering depiction of a variety of nocturnal moods that focuses especially on a frantic, phantasmagorical cascading catalogue of notes on the one hand, and a more becalmed, mysterious thematic group on the other. Aimard coped astonishingly well with the technical demands of the piece- he never wavered in his very precise articulation of the polyrhythms and undulating lines of the music, and his controlled use of the sustain pedal meant that at least some sense of reconciliation could be brought to the schizophrenic music. However as I have said the loud explosions recurrent throughout failed to hit the mark, and a consistent sense of colour was absent. This was a sharp and steely performance, but it must be said that a feeling of abstract technical rigour, and consequently empty showmanship, was never truly overcome. At about twenty-two minutes it was also the longest piece in the concert, and its fitful lack of dramatic and musical interest meant the performance proved something of a longueur in the concert.

Pierre-Laurent AimardDespite these local criticisms, Aimard's pedigree generally overrode his lapses into routine. It does seem to me that he is more a pianist for the big occasion, for a late-evening leap into high pianistic drama and density, and as such this lunchtime concert felt a little awkward and incongruous at times. But this impression is of course only personal, and the often-high standard of music making on show more than compensated for any misgivings the setting may have called up within me. Overall, this was an enjoyable, well-presented concert; Christopher Cook proved an amiable host, even if his introductions veered into twee platitudes at times The next seven concerts in this series promise much, with highlights including what should be fascinating performances from amongst many others Jordi Savall, Julia Fischer, and the fine young soprano, Elizabeth Watts.

By Stephen Graham