First, to put this in perspective. Can you imagine the BBC opening its Proms season with a monumental three-hour-long, mostly atonal solo piano work? But that’s what the Musikfest Berlin and its artistic director Winrich Hopp did for its 2019 edition. It’s the kind of bold decision that, through making a festival memorable, shows a sense of vision. This year’s Musikfest, alongside a Gallic focus in works by Berlioz, Messiaen and Debussy, shows an ongoing commitment to adventurous recent music, with performances of Lachenmann (several), Grisey, Neuwirth, Andriessen and Eötvös among others.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays Messiaen © Monika Karczmarczyk
Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays Messiaen
© Monika Karczmarczyk

This concert certainly had a sense of occasion. Beforehand, the mostly full hall bubbled with anticipation; there was a sense of relief at the summer ending and the new concert season being upon us. Still, the combination of uncompromisingly challenging music and late starting time – we didn’t leave the hall until after midnight – meant that, after the second interval, a chunk of the audience had slipped out.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux (1956-1958) – Messiaen’s exhaustive exposition of birdsong and bird habitat – came out last year on Pentatone. It was recorded in Berlin, and in a sense Aimard was here affirming the link between his reading of Messiaen’s work and the German capital. In interview, Aimard has spoken of deliberately waiting until the right moment in his life before approaching the Catalogue d’Oiseaux. Although decades ago Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod (for whom the work was written) advised him on different aspects of the work, Aimard wished “from a humanist and philosophical point of view” to attain a later point in life before performing the work. Whatever his reasons, Aimard’s Catalogue combines astonishing technique, idiosyncrasy and emotional depth.

Not least among the work's performative challenges is the need to create a sense of unity over its hours-long duration whilst at the same time having ample nuance and sensitivity to retain the audience’s interest. In the case of the former point, Messiaen’s arch form helps; the number of birds in each book follows a mirror scheme, the first and last books having three birds each, the second and second-last having one, and so on. The latter point, however, is very much a test of the pianist. The 13 pieces feature 27 birds in all, each painted pianistically within its habitat (Messiaen’s score lists alongside the bird the specific region of France in which it’s found).

The opening Le Chocard des Alpes contrasts the bird’s declamations with long silences. Aimard stretched the silences out to an intense length, consequently making the birdsong more urgent in character. Aimard’s lines were wonderfully clear and precise, limned with lightness and definition. In Le Merle de roche, by contrast, Aimard’s chords were meaty, violent and unforgiving; a fiery intensity charged the harmonies with power. At times in Aimard’s care towards painting the birds’ environment, a heritage in Debussy’s Préludes suggested itself.

Aimard’s approach to the Catalogue is both studiously precise and occasionally spontaneous. If L’Alouette lulu – a woodlark's hushed nocturne – was taken at a faster tempo than one would have liked, there was leeway for how Aimard’s breezy reading fit with what had gone before. The wide expanses of the central, half-hour-long piece La Rousserolle effarvatte were tttloriotat once observant (the piece features various birds over the course of a dawning day alongside the titular one) and meditative. The L’Alouette calandrelle that followed contrasted as a polar opposite – sprightly, gentle, dancing.

Aimard’s mix of precision and passion was most notable in his proclivity for vocalising. Whilst listening to Aimard’s grunts and growls might not have been to everyone’s taste, for me it injected the work with a real sense of wonder, the pianist’s submission not only to the gravity but to the levity of the natural world. Le Loriot – an homage at once to the bird and to Messiaen’s wife – was captivating; the careering lines were dispatched not with a furrowed brow but with loving wide-eyed enthusiasm. During Le Merle bleu, as Aimard hummed along with the jazzy chords, it was clear he was not aiming for a taxonomic catalogue; his aim was to communicate living nature in all its drama and strange vitality. Given the parlous situation we find ourselves in these days with the natural world, Aimard’s reading conveyed a sense of high stakes.