When I first settled into my red velvet seat at Carnegie Hall, my excitement was overtaken by a grim foreboding. The hall’s internationally celebrated acoustics were offering an all-too-dazzling earful of sneezes and sniffles – a fact I observed in a germaphobic panic. Flu season has arrived in New York, but that didn’t deter anyone from attending Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s solo piano recital last Thursday. In fact, the hall was packed full of diverse (if sickly) listeners anticipating this incredibly versatile performer’s concert.

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

Mr Aimard, born in 1957 in Lyon, France, was a student at the Paris Conservatoire before becoming, at age 19, the first solo pianist of Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble intercontemporain. Significantly, however, Mr Aimard does not specialize solely in the challenging avant-garde works of Boulez and other 20th-century composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Elliott Carter. The French pianist possesses the daunting ability to interpret and crystallize notes written throughout all periods, from all regions, with grace and sensitivity. This is why his interpretation of “Romantic” sounds by Schumann ran so fluidly alongside his performance of a more obscure “modern” work by Heinz Holliger and a set of intricate preludes by Debussy. Mr Aimard’s tone is delicate yet searingly emotional, and his presence is quietly passionate, in contrast to many virtuoso pianists. He radiates intensity and, where others might reach for showiness, he offers a simmering seriousness, conveying the composer’s message rather than his own.

During the first half of the program, he showered the audience (whose sniffles had somewhat abated) with Book II of Claude Debussy’s Préludes. Debussy, one of the controversial artistic figures of the early 20th century, was born in 1862, making 2012 the 150th anniversary of his birth-year (an event somewhat less celebrated than the centenary of John Cage, also this year). Debussy is credited with pushing classical music “forward” with his sensual harmonies, blending tonal, modal, and chromatic thoughts. He was more interested in abstractions – timbre and color – than in conventional aesthetics, and he is often labeled an “Impressionist” composer, despite his personal opposition to the term. Christening this collection Préludes, according to the program notes, was just one of his many tactics to disassociate himself from the Impressionist movement: “preludes” carry a traditional, almost bland connotation, in comparison with a visually evocative title such as Images.

It became clear to me during Mr Aimard’s performance why “symbolist” or even “realist” is a much more appropriate designation for Debussy than “impressionist”. The twelve Préludes conjured much more than impressions or vague images. Instead, the rippling harmonies, the overlapping textures, and the unpredictable, labyrinthine chromaticism created the realities Debussy so longed to depict. During “Feuilles mortes”, I didn’t glimpse dead leaves fluttering behind my eyelids each time I blinked – no, Mr Aimard took the notes themselves and transformed them into dead leaves. During “La puerta del vino”, I could almost taste the wine flowing along the sound waves permeating the hall. Throughout the final prelude, “Feux d'artifice”, the notes became fireworks, each phrase a delightful, unexpected explosion of colors and light.  This metamorphosis actuated by Mr Aimard, this ability to take music and turn it into not impressions but realities, would surely have pleased Debussy himself.

The second half of the program featured Elis (Three Night Pieces), a 1963 composition (revised in 1973) by Heinz Holliger. Elis was a brief but intriguing expressionist work once again conveyed with utmost sincerity and seriousness by Mr Aimard. I had barely wrapped my mind around this unusual and somewhat haunting piece of music when I was swept into Schumann’s Symphonic Études (with posthumous études). After the delicate, almost fragrant precision Mr Aimard brought to the Debussy preludes, I was shocked to hear him incite such dense German sounds with the same two hands. Similar realities were conjured, but these were broiling with emotion rather than affecting the five senses as Debussy’s had. I found myself breathless through each variation of the posthumous étude and the final étude (Allegro brillante) was genuinely thrilling.

Mr Aimard seemed reluctant to perform an encore despite our incessant clapping and shouting, but he finally returned to the piano to play Fratribute, a 2008 piece by Elliott Carter, who passed away on 5 November at nearly 104 years old. I have seen pianists play two, three, and even four encores at Carnegie Hall, but I don’t think any of those experiences quite matched the intensity of Mr Aimard’s two-minute homage. When his hands left the keyboard, a deafening silence clamored through the hall for some time before the audience burst into yet another round of applause. As my fellow listeners then reached for yet another tissue, I found myself doing the same, but I think for quite a different reason.

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