Piano virtuoso Pierre-Laurent Aimard doubles back to Beethoven

Original article published on the CU Independent here.

French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard is the master of creating connections in his repertoire. At his Tuesday night program in Macky Auditorium, Aimard cleverly showed links between Beethoven’s Romantic-era piano sonatas, 20th-century French modernism, a Baroque organ fantasy and a 2011 series of atonal, canonic preludes. He titled the program “Beethoven the Avant-gardist.”

Aimard opened the first half with a profound rendition of “L’alouette-lulu” from Oliver Messiaen’s “Catalogue d’oiseaux.” As a student, Aimard studied with Olivier Messiaen’s wife Yvonne Loriod at the Paris Conservatory and is now a leading interpreter of Messiaen’s work. “Catalogue d’oiseaux” incorporated musical imitations of bird calls with atonal, colorful harmonies. Aimard used space powerfully, leisurely gliding above the keys, letting silence juxtapose the knotted chords.

In “Moonlight Sonata,” Aimard maintained intense passion for the entire 15-minute piece. Staying at a sedate tempo, Aimard then performed the iconic “Adagio sostenuto” with painful torment, as if every note was ripped from his fingers. Later, in the third movement “Presto agitato,” rapid scales exploded from the piano, showing Aimard’s technical precision and ingenuity.

Aimard tackled the entire first half without a pause, leaving no time for applause. Although unconventional, this approach allowed Aimard to connect the pieces seamlessly together. The dark, moody ending of “L’alouette-lulu” melted into Beethoven’s pensive “Moonlight Sonata,” which then launched back into a wandering “La chouette hulotte” from the same Messiaen suite. The resulting 35-minute mega-piece felt strangely cohesive, as if Messiaen, a quasi-atonal Debussy, wandered back into the Romantic era for the drama of Beethoven.

The long intermission, nearly 25 minutes, let the audience recover from the marathon first half. In the second half of the performance, Aimrad traversed centuries leading to Baroque composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s “Fantasia cromatica, SwWV 258,” originally for organ and later transcribed for piano. Then came British composer George Benjamin’s “Shadowlines,” debuted by Aimard in 2011,  and Beethoven’s grand “Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101.” 

After Sweelinck’s wandering organ fantasy, Aimard finally spoke. His previously detached stage persona became animated, if perhaps overly academic. A brainy virtuoso, Aimard dove deep into the brilliant programmatic connections, showing how Sweelinck’s scalar motifs linked to ideas in Messiaen and even Beethoven. His explanations seemed too complicated and didactic for his audience, who began to fidget, although his attention to detail was astounding.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 provided a comforting end, after the radical, inharmonious “Shadowlines.” From the dreamy first movement “Allegretto, ma non troppo,” to the swift “allegro.” Though the tempo wavered and a few notes went awry, Aimard continued fearlessly, certainly embodying the final movement’s direction of “with determination.” During the booming chords, Aimard became the stereotypical crazy pianist, his black hair bouncing with erratic head movements, hands flying dramatically into the air, perfect for an impassioned rendition of Beethoven.

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