INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR


The 2007 Honorees

By Paul Griffiths

He is that rara avis--an international virtuoso who arrived at stardom through devotion to new music. His programs intersperse Ravel with Carter, Beethoven with Ligeti, and Schubert with Stockhausen, providing an extraordinary agglomeration of works that call across space.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard must be the first pianist in a very long time to have become an international virtuoso through devotion to new music. Born in Lyon, France, in 1957, he belonged to the last generation of students at the Paris Conservatoire to enjoy contact both with Olivier Messiaen and with Messiaen's wife, Yvonne Loriod, who introduced him to the radiant colors, intensive rhythms, and ecstatic stillnesses of her husband's music. It was almost inevitable that he would win the Messiaen Piano Competition at his first opportunity, when he was 16, but--unlike others who have gained that distinction--he avoided being typecast as a "Messiaen pianist." He did, however, become a specialist in 20th-century repertory, partly as a result of the great opportunity he was given three years later, when Pierre Boulez invited him to become founding pianist of the Ensemble intercontemporain.

As such he worked with many of the leading composers of the time, among them György Ligeti, György Kurtág, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Helmut Lachenmann, and Luciano Berio--not to mention Boulez himself, for Aimard was in the team that gave the first performances of Boulez's Répons around the world in the early 1980s. He also had the opportunity to explore the modernist canon, from Schoenberg onward, besides keeping up his close acquaintance with Messiaen. And he was called on for new solo works, including the 45-minute Traiettoria ("Trajectory," 1982-84) for piano and computer by the Italian composer Marco Stroppa, an imposing work he has kept in his repertory.

After a decade with the Ensemble, he moved into a wideranging career as a soloist and chamber musician, but by no means abandoned his allegiance to new and recent music. He rejoined his former Ensemble colleagues for important recordings of works by Ligeti, Lachenmann, and Webern, and he continued to appear with Boulez, whether in the Schoenberg concerto or in Messiaen's orchestral works with solo piano. Indeed, his activity during the 1990s was very much an extension of his work with the Ensemble intercontemporain. Most importantly, he became Ligeti's favorite pianist. Beginning in November 1993, he gave the first performances of most of the composer's second and third books of études; he was also the pianist the composer chose to participate in the complete Ligeti Edition initiated by Sony and taken over by Teldec.

His recording of the Ligeti concerto for Teldec, in 2000, came just a year after he had laid down for the same company an account of Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus that was widely praised for its dynamism and supremely controlled extravagance. He thus made his first steps as a big-company artist while keeping very much the same profile. That, however, was soon to change. In December 2001 he gave his first solo recital at Carnegie Hall, and though he ended his program with three Ligeti études, he got to them by way of Beethoven (the "Appassionata" Sonata), Liszt, and Debussy.

In an unusual gesture, Teldec released the recital on CD six months later, complete with applause. But any suspicion of manufacturing a big occasion was immediately dispatched by the results. Aimard's pulse-driven energy, his strength, his moments of keen luminosity, and his command of texture and expression as form-creating all combined to produce an original and powerful Beethoven performance, surrounded by wonderful things in the rest of the program. He had waited three decades for this moment, and his long preparation--through Messiaen, through Ligeti--turned out to have been exactly appropriate in every degree. As he put it at the time: "If you have chosen your own culture, so to speak, then your reaction to a work of art will be something special."

Since then Aimard has confirmed his prowess in mainstream repertory, notably in recording the Beethoven concertos with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but he has also recorded Ives, Carter, and more Ligeti. And he has continued to bring forward new works, such as George Benjamin's Shadowlines. To quote him again: "This is today's music, and we are living today. If we want to bring some light from music into our lives, and into other people's lives, this should be the first thing. Also, having contact with people who create ways of thinking and feeling enlightens the past for us performing musicians, broadens our interpretation."

New music and old, newly viewed, accordingly meet in much of his work. This season he has residencies at Carnegie Hall--within the hall's "Perspectives" series--and at the Berlin Philharmonic. In Berlin his programs started with a concert that placed Beethoven with Kurtág, Stockhausen with Schubert, and will go on through an evening of chamber music by Mozart, Boulez, and Carter to finish with an extraordinary agglomeration of works that call across space, from canzonas by Gabrieli to the Stroppa showstopper.

His Carnegie Hall appearances began with what is for him now an old warhorse: the Ligeti concerto, with Boulez conducting. To come in March is another Hungarian concerto: Bartók’s First, this time with David Robertson. In May he will present a concert that takes its instrumentation from Bartók's "Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion"-- with Tamara Stefanovich, his regular duo partner, as fellow pianist, and Daniel Ciampolini and Joseph Gramley on percussion--but with the Bartók work niftily excluded in favor of music by other Hungarians (Ligeti, Kurtág, Peter Eötvös), as well as Conlon Nancarrow and Steve Reich. Besides all that, Aimard promises two potpourri solo recitals for Carnegie, ranging from Scarlatti to Messiaen, Stockhausen, Ligeti, and the French composer Tristan Murail.

Relationships with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe will also be continuing. In St. Paul he offers an extraordinary three-concerto program putting Ligeti between Mozart and Ravel, and he also takes the orchestra to Ojai, where he is this year's music director.His future looks secure--a future that will go on holding past and present in close and vivid dialogue.

Paul Griffiths writes music criticism and fiction. In 2005 he published The Penguin Companion to Classical Music, The Substance of Things Heard (a selection of reviews and essays, University of Rochester Press), and his debut recording, with cellist/composer Frances-Marie Uitti, there is still time (ECM). His most recent book is A Concise History of Western Music, published last summer by Cambridge.

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