Debussy: Préludes, Book II
Holliger: Elis (Three Night Pieces)
Schumann: Symphonic Studies, Op. 13
The French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard has always been known for his adventurous spirit and unique capacity of mixing old and new works, discovering hidden connections as well as new possibilities, somehow making everything flow seamlessly. So it came as a surprise to me that this year his Carnegie Hall stop would include standard, if substantial, works from Debussy and Schumann, with a short piece by Holliger stuck in-between for good measure. But the uncommon talent brewing under his unassuming demeanor is reason enough to go hear him no matter what is on the program. So it is with full confidence in our evening that my friend Linden and I entered the Isaac Stern Auditorium after a rather harrowing day at work. We knew we were in good hands.
I am not entirely convinced that French music must be performed by French musicians in order to reach its highest level of being. However, when the perfect combination of complete Frenchness and outstanding musicianship appears, things are extremely unlikely to get better indeed. Drawing on his no doubt intimate knowledge of Debussy's Préludes, Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave each of the precious miniatures of Book II a compelling life of their own by precisely highlighting their details and delicately livening up their colors. And while he kept a brisk pace, he never rushed them or came close to overlooking any of their many fine points. From the atmospheric "Brouillards" (Fogs) to the dazzling "Feux d'artifice" (Fireworks), every single étude stood up proudly on its own, with a special mention for the ever-shifting "Homage à S. Pickwick, Esq. P.P.M.P.C.".
Heinz Holliger may be a famous oboist, but he also knows a thing or two about composing for the piano as his Elis can attest. Covering a wide range of sounds, it was a short but expansive musical experience.
I have never been a huge fan of Schumann, but it may very well be simply because I have never had the right exposure to him. Thursday night at Carnegie Hall may not have completely changed my mind, but Pierre-Laurent Aimard has certainly provided me with the proper tools for a much deeper and more informed appreciation of the fiendishly difficult Symphonic Studies. Just as he was expertly working his way through those minefields, I found in them the fictional characters the composer created to represent the opposite ends of his personality: the hot-blooded Florestan, oozing Romantic intensity, and the brooding Eusebius, impersonating introverted thoughtfulness. Ever the understated virtuoso, Aimard gave an aseptically clean, unswervingly coherent and still fundamentally affecting performance of these études, clearly reminding us that he is not just a contemporary music aficionado, but can handle the classics with the best of them as well.
As we were not ready to let him go just yet, he eventually came back for a homage to the "beloved and irreplaceable" Elliott Carter, who passed away on November 5, with a sober rendition of "Fratribute" from Tri-Tribute. A short bit that went a long way in heart-felt meaningfulness.