This year, the Singapore International Piano Festival has seen recitals with unusual juxtapositions, such as Schumann and Villa-Lobos (from Malaysian pianist Tengku Irfan) and Kurtág with Beethoven (Jonathan Biss). French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, helming the festival’s final evening, had on his plate nothing but miniatures. 

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Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Nathaniel Lim | Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The recital opened with György Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata, eleven short pieces which grew organically from working on two notes (A and D) in its first piece, three notes (E, F and G) in the second, and so on till the eleventh with all twelve of the chromatic scale. Inserted between each piece were selected Bagatelles (from Op.33 and 119) by Beethoven, chosen for their harmonic relationships, shared idiomatic characteristics and possibly spiritual inspirations. That Ligeti’s wind quintet arrangements of six pieces from Musica Ricercata were named Bagatelles was no accident. 

And so it began, octave tremolos in A, rhythmic beats landing on A, dancing As, exhausting all possibilities before closing with an emphatic D and echoes of both notes. What followed was a Beethoven Bagatelle, a rustic waltz in A minor. Then Beethoven's Scherzo of C major triads preceded Ligeti’s no. 3, where C minor triads play a game of Punch and Judy. The pairing in B flat major was just as euphonious, Beethoven’s hymn-like miniature followed by Ligeti’s no. 7, with seamless lyricism from the right hand accompanied by rapid left hand ostinati. 

Ligeti’s energetic folk dance à la Bartók in no. 8 was followed by Beethoven’s Op.119 no.5, an equally rustic jaunt, then leading into Ligeti’s ninth, a homage to Bartók with tolling bells and “night music” trills. By Ligeti’s no. 11, a twelve-note fugue in homage to Frescobaldi, the heightened dissonance anticipated his Études to come. Aimard performed with a score, the pages he turned himself, and kept the audience transfixed to the end. 

The recital’s second half comprised just sets of Études. The three by Claude Debussy were familiar to pianophiles, beginning with no. 3 (Pour les quartes) which benefited from Aimard’s judicious pedalling so as not to sound too “wet”. The whirlwind of semiquavers of no. 7 (Pour les degrés chromatiques) swept the keyboard before the lyricism of no. 11 (Pour les arpèges composés) led into the Chopin group. All three Études were from Op.32, in F minor, D flat major and the A minor Winter Wind. One would arguably hear more immaculate readings at international piano competitions but musicality was never in short supply. 

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Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the Victoria Concert Hall
© Nathaniel Lim | Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Aimard sealed his reputation as a 20th-century specialist with the Ligeti Études, and the six selected from Books 1 and 2 did not disappoint. Clangorous bell-like sonorities enveloped no. 7 (Galamb Borong) while no. 8 (Fém, Hungarian for “metal”) swung freely with a jazz-like swagger. The aural impression of shedding leaves in no. 6 (Automne à Varsovie) was devastatingly vivid while no. 2 (Cordes à vide) provided semblance of tonal respite. If there were favourites among the Études, the relentless drive of no.4 (Fanfares) and escalating violence of no. 13 (L’escalier du diable) sated listeners’ appetites for terminal velocity. 

For his encores, Aimard’s response was “Ligeti, of course!” Thus the repeated-note paradise that is no. 10 (Der Zauberlehling) was whipped off effortlessly before the Trois Bagatelles from 1961. This comprised a single low C sharp, a gesture of the hand and a nod of the head, with page turns in between besides making sure these were not performed from memory. This John Cage send-up had the audience in stitches.