Pierre-Laurent Aimard is a pianist who really likes to get inside the music he performs, whether Liszt, Boulez, Messiaen, or, as in the case of his Chamber Prom at Cadogan Hall (the last of the 2012 season), Debussy. In a concert to celebrate the sesquicentennial anniversary of Debussy’s birth, Aimard demonstrated not only his tremendous technical facility, but also his artistry and profound understanding of his compatriot’s oeuvre, the result, as Aimard admits, of being “overwhelmed” by Debussy from a young age.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard  ©  Marco Borggreve / Deutsche Grammophon
Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Marco Borggreve / Deutsche Grammophon

Aimard selected the second book of Debussy’s Préludes because, as he said in a recent interview, the “development of everything” is in Book 2: in these short evocations, some almost improvisatory in nature, Debussy pushes the boundaries of harmonies in the use of timbre, colour and space rather than strict harmonic progressions, musical ambiguities and complexities, the pleasures of sonority, and the composer’s fascination with non-musical sources of inspiration (mists, autumn leaves, fairies, Dickens, the English countryside, ancient Egypt). In these works Debussy looks forward to his later style, aligning himself, musically, with the great modernists Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Aimard describes these works as “wonderful labyrinths of sound”.

As an entrée, Aimard performed three short pieces. The opening work, Les soirs illuminés par l'ardeur du charbon, is a piece which surfaced just over ten years ago, and was written during the harsh wartime winter of 1916-17 as a gesture of thanks to the Debussy family’s coal merchant, who managed to slip the household some extra fuel. It begins quietly, almost muted, softly sensual with the lilt of the café or nightclub in its mood and melody. Élégie, the last piece Debussy wrote for piano, is more austere, just 21 bars long, a work of fluid rhythm and modality. In both, Aimard’s precision and control were very evident, in particular his ability to make the bass notes of the piano growl, swell and bloom as the music dictates, but never dominating a subtly nuanced melodic line. Masques, the last piece in the opening trio, was played with a sprightly, child-like tenderness.

But it was in the Préludes that Aimard truly demonstrated his deep understanding and affection for this music, from the misty, hushed sounds of Brouillards, the languid, beguiling habanera of La Puerta del Vino, a wonderfully quirky Général Lavine – eccentric, the bumptious Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq, to a study in thirds, and the mournful depiction of an Egyptian urn in Canope. Barely reaching fortissimo, yet displaying a huge range of dynamic colour and shading, Aimard brought humour, wit and poetry to the music, highlighting every nuance, every expression with scrupulous attention to detail. His pianissimos were soft whispers of sound, his fingers barely brushing the keys. His face was as expressive as his playing, fascinating to watch as he responded to the emotions and moods of each piece, occasionally offering a cheeky aside to the audience. He lifted sounds from the piano with fluid gestures, allowing notes to float and soar, while his sensitive touch and judicious pedaling achieved controlled blurring of sounds, where the score dictates, or glittering passagework, as in Feux d’artifice, and thoughtful silences, which allowed the music to breathe and relax.

In an interview for Reuters, Aimard described Debussy as a “hedonist” of sound, and this definition was clear in Aimard’s performance – one of incredible precision, intensity, sensitivity, and sensuality, which showed Debussy to be a composer of great complexity, a profound and dark artist, and a revolutionary of sonority and musical colour.

PCM 8Frances Wilson reviews PCM 8: Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Cadogan Hall playing Debussy's Preludes, Book 2.5