Pierre-Laurent Aimard is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful of performers. He is also is possession of the most glittering of techniques, which he always deploys in the service of the music. Filmed in Berlin's Teldex Studio, with an introduction by the performer as part of the interest Virtual Circle series of online concerts, this event proved to be a most stimulating experience. It opened with a tiny chimerical new work Le Chien by the forever quirky Hungarian composer György Kurtág, which was almost over before it began, but was delivered impeccably, of course, by Aimard.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Julia Wesely

After this canapé, the meal proper began with L'alouette lulu (The Woodlark) by Olivier Messiaen. The sixth piece from his massive exploration of the sounds and imagery of the avian world, Catalogue d'oiseaux, it is atmospheric and gentle, with the birdsong seeming to echo through an imaginary sunlit forest. Aimard is superb in this repertoire, perhaps the most innately idiomatic exponent of Messiaen alive today, and he certainly demonstrated this with a commandingly sensitive performance.

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata followed it into that forest atmosphere. The oh-so-famous opening movement disappointed somewhat, lacking the sense of composure and seamlessness of line that it surely demands, the tempo slightly fast. The central Allegretto plodded somewhat and had more the character of a Ländler than a Scherzo. It was in the Presto finale that Aimard really came alive, finding a passionate and tempestuous spirit in the music and a driving sense of purpose.

Messaien’s La Chouette hulotte (The Tawny Owl), again from his Catalogue d’oiseaux, picked up this fiery mood in one of the composers most angular and harmonically advanced works for piano. Aimard was again master of its every mood, with its chordal outbursts echoing, this time, across a dark and threatening forest scene.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F minor, "Appassionata" is one his supreme achievements in any form. When it was first heard in 1807 it must have seemed extremely shocking and in the right performance it still seems daring, its unbuttoned emotions still shocking. Aimard was at his very best in the opening Allegro assai, presenting the headlong progress with less logic and more raw abandon. This was not a late classical sonata form movement pushing the boundaries, but a full-blown Romantic statement, pointing the way past Schubert to Schumann and Liszt. The Andante was played at quite a lick, but with precision and intense charm, continuing the high-octane concept of the previous movement. In the finale, Aimard again did not shirk from the rawness of the music which, even in the few moments of repose, seemed as if it were on the brink of something catastrophic. If you like your Appassionata without a veneer of drawing room politeness as I do, then this was the performance for you.

What more intriguing work could follow this masterwork than Stockhausen's Klavierstück IX, a work predictably uncompromising and disturbing on the surface, but with an inner beauty and composure that are also the hallmark of this much misunderstood composer. It’s hard to believe that anyone could have elucidated the narrative of the piece more clarity and poetry more than Aimard achieved here.

This performance was reviewed from the Virtual Circle video stream