French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave the first of two concerts at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall to celebrate Franz Liszt’s bicentenary, and to coincide with the release of his ambitious recording, The Liszt Project.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard © Marco Borggreve
Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Marco Borggreve

In an inventive and impeccably performed programme, Aimard placed works by Liszt alongside music by Bartok, contemporary composer Marco Stroppa, Ravel and Messiaen to demonstrate Liszt’s profound and lasting influence, and as a way of blurring the borders between one style and another. Connections were made not just musically, but also thematically and metaphorically in a spell-binding concert of intense concentration and illuminating pianism.

The first two pieces, Liszt’s Au cyprès de la Villa d’este and Bartok’s Nenies from the 'Four Dirges', were meditations on death. But this was not the only connection: both composed by Hungarians with a deep understanding of the piano, these pieces shared motifs in their uncertain harmonies, and architectural chord progressions. Hearing the Bartok immediately after the Liszt allowed us to fully comprehend how far Liszt went at the end of his life stylistically so that there is almost an ambiguity between late Liszt and early Bartok.

After death came joyous birdsong as the Legende, ‘St Francis d’Assise’ introduced another of the evening’s themes – birds – and Aimard brought the story of St Francis preaching to the birds alive with delicate, airy flutterings high in the treble, while the saint’s blessing emerged through the flurry of feathers in a section of great spirituality.

The same shimmering, crystalline articulation and profound control were evident in Marco Stroppa’s Tangata Manu, a piece inspired by an Easter Island myth. Growls and rolls deep in the bass were offset by clusters and sparkles in high in the treble in a challenging and highly dramatic work.

In the ‘water pieces’, by Liszt and Ravel, fountains plashed and glinted in a seemingly endless cycle. Liszt’s Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este is spiritual and pre-impressionistic, while Ravel’s Jeux d’eau, a piece directly influenced by Liszt, is a study in glorious sound-painting, expertly articulated by Aimard.

More birds in Le Traquet stapazin from the 'Catalogue d’Oiseaux' by Messiaen, a composer with whom Aimard has a particular association. Like Liszt, Messiaen uses birdsong to celebrate not just the beauty of nature but also the awe-inspiring creation of God. The piece is also a meditation on the passing of time as the movement moves from sunrise to sunset in a frenzy of birdsong (gulls, warblers, ravens), each carefully delineated by Messiaen’s colourful writing with sonorous chords, fluted notes, percussive squawks and shrieks, all beautifully and evocatively nuanced by Aimard.

A return to the landscape of Switzerland in the final piece, Liszt’s Vallee d’Obermann, another work which combines spirituality and nature. Built on a very simple descending motif, the ferocity of nature’s grandeur is evoked in the tumultuous middle section with rumbling tremolandos and stormy octaves before an emotionally ambiguous close. This was a masterful performance, the majesty of the landscape brought to life in Aimard’s fierce concentration, fine cantabile playing, and deft passagework.

There was no interval in this arresting and absorbing programme, thus allowing us to fully appreciate the ongoing influence of Franz Liszt, and his legacy and permanence. A fitting celebration of the composer’s bicentenary.

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