Of the many anniversary events designed to bolster Liszt's credentials as a 'serious' composer, Pierre-Laurent Aimard's two-part Liszt Project at the Queen Elizabeth Hall looks set to be one of the most interesting and persuasive, on the evidence of the first concert last night, in any case. Aimard has assembled two typically varied and interesting programmes that, in less PR-savvy times, might have been called something like 'Liszt and his Followers'.
Last night's programme mixed two pieces from the Italian Année de pèlerinage – the rarely heard 'Aux cypress de la Villa d'Este: Thrénodie' alongside the more ubiquitous 'Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este' – with the First Légende and 'Vallée d'Obermann'. Interspersed between these was Bartók's 'Nénie' (fourth and most undirgelike of his Opus 9 Dirges), Marco Stroppa's Miniature estrose – Tangata manu, Ravel's Jeux d'eau and Messiaen's 'Le Traquet stapazin' (from Catalogue d'oiseux).
It's a programme that requires quite a box of tricks from the pianist, not to mention stamina. Aimard upped the stakes yet further by performing it all without an interval, and, having politely forbidden applause until the end, with hardly a break between each work. The fact it was being broadcast live on Radio Three (listen again here) only added to the sense of high-wire danger, although it's interesting to ponder whether or not Liszt, as inventor of the piano recital, would have approved of the format. It certainly inspired (and demanded) greater concentration from the listener as Aimard, playing from the score, took us on his carefully planned journey.
On a superficial level, the pianist conquered one technical hurdle after the other with astonishing skill: the blistering demands of Stroppa's imaginative writing were well met, Messiaen's colours were finely calibrated across the range and the Ravel glistened and twinkled with brilliance. The Liszt works themselves were performed with no less fluid virtuosity, and his influence as master of colour and texture was clear to hear, even if the programme did rather highlight the piano's inability to distinguish between pictorial representation of water and evocation of birdsong. But perhaps that was part of the aim: to blur the boundaries between music's long-held and long-debated double ability to picture and reflect; between a desire to respond to nature and a desire to 'record' it.
Yet, while this contextualisation of the Liszt helped emphasise the astonishing way in which he broadened the piano's coloristic palette, it was Aimard's ability to present the composer's notes with such integrity and economy that served him best. St. Francis's birds have tweeted more beguilingly, I'm sure, and some droplets from the Villa d'Este's fountain seemed a little heavy, but the musical logic was never in doubt. Best of all, perhaps, was 'Vallée d'Obermann', weighted here towards its remarkable introduction – an introspective adventure in colour and harmony. (Although did a memory lapse mean we got more of it than we were supposed to? I wasn't sure; and I didn't care). The central storm was reined in and unleashed only at key moments, while Aimard's technique allowed for the final peroration to stay firmly within the bounds of good taste and musical logic: vast chords were finely gauged where others bash; double octaves were fluid where elsehwhere they are snatched and percussive. It was so impressive a display that I wondered, with a certain guilt, what Aimard would bring to a flashy operatic paraphrase or, at least, the Mephisto Waltz.
That would be fascinating to hear, but such repertoire doesn't seem to feature among Aimard's Liszt at the moment; and his second concert on 7 December includes the B-minor Sonata and other late works coupled with Berg and Scriabin—there, harmony, it seems, will take over from the coloristic focus of this concert. All in all, though, Aimard's Project looks set to count as one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking additions to Liszt's anniversary. And it's all captured on a two-CD set from DG, too.
By Hugo Shirley
Photo © Felix Broede/DG