Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard links together the unexpected
Building a recital program starts with wanting to bring pieces together, then "you try to give an organization to the whole thing," says Pierre-Laurent Aimard from his hotel in Troy, New York. The French pianist will bring to Chicago a program of Schumann, Ravel, Debussy and the Hungarian miniaturist György KurtÁg—an incongruous collection of composers, at first look.
But Aimard thinks that in light of the previous receptions Chicago audiences have given him, the connections between the composers will stand out. While most soloists play the same program throughout a recital tour, Chicago is the only stop in which he'll try to link these particular composers. Like his mentor Pierre Boulez, Aimard aims to show how different composers relate to each other. And if standing ovations are any indicator, he seems to be succeeding. "I have never been disappointed [in Chicago] because they were people with concentration, warmth and they were ready for adventures," he says.
In 2001, Aimard gave a recital here that still has fans buzzing called Twenty Pieces from the 20th Century. The work stated, as Aimard puts it, "This is the landscape in which we will walk together." In addition to playing the pieces, he talked about each work beforehand. The following season, he performed Messiaen's two-hour Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Perspectives on the Baby Jesus), which had people on their feet when he took a break after the first ten Regards. Last season, Aimard played Boulez's First Piano Sonata at a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, putting that work in harmony with Stravinsky, Messiaen and Japanese gagaku.
It's performances like these that have led Aimard to be viewed as a new-music specialist—even The New York Times wrote in a recent recital review that he has been "branching into standard repertory." Aimard doesn't agree.
"I've been playing [Beethoven and Debussy] forever, and I've needed them forever," Aimard counters. Pursuing contemporary music was a "kind of revenge to the state of the world. I was furious, being a teenager, to live in a world that neglected so much contemporary music and art." But even as he played contemporary music regularly with the Ensemble InterContemporain, he studied piano with Maria Curcio, a student of the great Beethoven pianist Artur Schnabel.
Armed with his knowledge of music old and new, Aimard's goal with programming is "to let the audience discover some pieces, to put pieces in relationships where someone might discover some hidden aspects," he says. It's not a simple idea, like placing works from the same time period or country together, but trying to find ways that a German Romantic like Schumann could be shown to share interests with a Hungarian avant-gardist like KurtÁg.
The aforementioned Hungarian's been at work for several decades writing collections of works called JÁtékok (Games). These knotty little gems (one is even called Knots) are usually brief and rather quizzical, seeming to end before they begin. How this squares with a heart-on-sleeve Romantic like Schumann requires some explanation.
They "can be purely music," referring only to themselves and not to their picturesque titles, or the connection can be found in their "hidden messages," which Schumann also peppered throughout his work, Aimard says. Other connections are the homages and "moments of humor" both composers placed into their works.
Also on his program are works by Debussy and Ravel, who suggest even more connections. Both Schumann's Carnaval and Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit are "night pieces," Aimard says. "Gaspard is night music of the fantastic and of nightmare, and the Ball scene of Carnaval is probably night music." Debussy's historical position as a French modernist, in Aimard's view, is "so much linked to Ravel," and his "light, the elasticity and the humor that he shows are not very far from Schumann." It may not be the clearest of connections to explain, but since he's built up a trusting fan base, Sunday's audience will be ready for an adventure.
Aimard pieces it all together at Symphony Center's Orchestra Hall on Sunday 6.