ravel carter aimard warner

Déjà Review: this review was first published in July 2005 and the recording is still available.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la Nuit (1908)
Elliott Carter (1908-2012)
Night Fantasies (1978-80)
Two Diversions (1999)
90+ (1994)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
rec. 2005, Grosser Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Warner Classics 2564 62160-2 [58]

Now that Pierre-Laurent Aimard is turning his attention more readily to mainstream repertoire, it gives us a chance to put into a wider context the qualities in his playing. That he is one of the modern breed of ‘super-virtuosos’ there can be no doubt. He positively revels in complexities, eating up fistfuls of notes and spitting them out with ease. With much of the music he has specialised in (Ligeti, Ives, Carter) that factor has been more than enough to carry the day, but with a piece such as Gaspard, with its multi-layered pictorial evocations, we obviously need more. There is so much competition in this music that something rather special is required, and while this is extremely good, I’m not sure it is lifted above the likes of Argerich, Pogorelich (my favourite) or Hewitt.

You would think with a technique like Aimard’s, that the tricky shimmering ostinato that opens Ondine would be perfectly stable. It must be a conscious decision, but it seems rather lumpy and uneven to me, especially when compared to, say, Jean-Yves Thibaudet on Decca, a reading full of poetry and insight. Maybe Aimard finds it too easy, though I like his treatment of the big climactic passage later on. His Gibet is very steady, even slower than Pogorelich, but tension is maintained through his colouring of the hallucinatory harmonies that surround the repeated B flat. This is beautifully cool and calculated, drained of excess and all the more effective for it – try the passage at 2’45, truly pp sans expressionScarbo brings the sort of qualities we expect of Aimard to the fore, malevolence, menace, daredevil virtuosity easily in the Argerich mould. I still find Pogorelich’s kaleidoscopic shifts in colour unbeatable in this movement, but Aimard is impressive and though-provoking in his superb control and ice-cool detachment.

Gaspard comes with a very wide variety of couplings, but Aimard’s Carter is as valid as any. The main work is entitled Night Fantasies, and is as terrifying as anything in the Ravel. The composer describes it as ‘a piano piece of continuously changing moods, suggesting the fleeting thoughts and feelings that pass through the mind during a period of wakefulness at night’. I suppose this gives the composer a wide brief, a sort of ‘anything goes’, although anyone familiar with Carter’s style may know what to expect. There are a lot of notes, a thorny diversity of texture, an exceptionally wide-ranging use of the keyboard but no melodies as we know them, more a shifting series of episodes explored through a diverse palette of sound. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but this is meat and drink to Aimard, whose phenomenal grasp of Carter’s complex sound-world puts him on a par with those other Carter keyboard champions, Charles Rosen and Ursula Oppens. The two shorter works display similar tendencies, though there is a cheeky, minimalist charm to 90+, written for the 90th birthday of another long-lived composer, Goffredo Petrassi.

Hearing intelligent, erudite musicians talk about music is always worthwhile, so the bonus disc is to be welcomed even if it does, understandably, concentrate on the less familiar Carter works. The recorded sound is a little close for my taste but the instrument is in good shape and is well caught generally. Liner notes by modern music expert Paul Griffiths are fairly short but very readable. Excellent Gaspards are legion in the catalogue, but if you fancy the offbeat coupling, don’t hesitate.

Tony Haywood

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