Monday, 21 June 2010

Aldeburgh 2010: Pierre-Laurent Aimard presents Collage-Montage

Collage-Montage is, in the words of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, artistic director of the Aldeburgh festival, and the evening's sole audible performer, "a game".  The key idea behind it is to put together works, miniatures, and find common themes.  Thirty-seven pieces in all, by twenty-three composers, grouped into five sections, on paper it represents a slightly daunting prospect.  At the same time, as enticing as the multiple course tasting menu of a fine restaurant.

In the end, the result was both fascinating and enthralling.  Helped by his insightful spoken links (though at some moments they were not quite clearly audible), Aimard repeatedly found common ground you might not have expected and wove different compostions together in a manner that, at times, was almost seamless.

The opening section, Prelude elementaire, was based around pieces with repeating notes or groups of notes, from Ligeti's Musica Ricercata to Pierre Boulez's Notations.  Indeed, one of the many themes running through the evening was to connect many of the composers whose work is appearing elsewhere in festival.  What was remarkable, though, was the different ways in which the various composers approached a similar idea, and yet it wasn't always completely obvious where one piece ended and another began.

The second moment, Sostenuto, was perhaps the least successful - though this is relative since it was still very good.  It started off well enough with Kurtag (not something you'll hear me say very often), and Im Memoriam Gyorgy Szoltanyi, which provided a nice link from the repeating notes of the first part to the second which instead emphasised the different intervals between notes.  I tend to find Kurtag leaves me cold, but here, particularly when framing a Diabelli Variation, his pieces actually did seem to lend a greater insight.  However, it was actually easier to follow the gaps between the pieces here, in contrast to Aimard's intention in the programme note, and several of them, especially the Catacombs from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, towered a little too much over the others.  In a superb moment towards the close, either at the end of Kurtag's Doina or the start of Marco Stroppa's Ninna-nanna, both soloist and page turner hovered their hands over the keyboard in best John Cage fashion.

The third section, the first of two scherzos as Aimard described them, was remarkable.  As the name implies, 3x3 took three groups of three works.  In each case an introductory piece and then two which built on and developed the idea.  Thus Scott Joplin's Weeping Willow was followed by Stravinsky's Piano Rag Music and thence George Benjamin's Relativity Rag; a Schubert waltz by Stravinsky and Ligeti, and so on.  It was magnificent.

A second scherzo followed.  Or, as Aimard described it, the scherzo Mahler might have written for a piano sonata.  Here, though, the idea of miniatures was taken to extremes, with some pieces, especially from John Cage's Four Haiku, consisting of just a couple of notes.  There were, as he described it, lots of musical question marks.  There was also a great deal of wit, with various pieces only being allowed to continue for a few bars.  Indeed, the section was framed by the opening and ending of Beethoven's op.126/6 Bagatelle.

Interestingly, in the final section his interpretation once again seemed slightly at odds with his programme note, which talked about more abrupt joins.  On the contrary (and in fairness, rather more in line with his spoken introduction), this section arguably flowed the most naturally and it was often hardest to see the joins.  Was that the Messiaen over already?  Yes, as it turned out, and into Ravel's sublime Gaspard de la nuit.  You wouldn't necessarily expect this could then morph naturally into The Great Gate of Kiev, which made for a nice finale, but it can, and in Aimard's hands it did.

It was, in a word, fascinating.  It was also a brave piece of programming.  At an hour and a half, without interval, it was a bit too much for one man who walked out (by seemingly the longest route possible).  However, he was very much in the minority and most seemed to have been similarly enthralled.  Though even enjoying it, you had the sense that more was going on than you were able to take in, such was the flood of new pieces and contrasts.

A word should probably be said about Aimard's pianism, since the above is merely testament to his skill as a programmer.  This, if anything, was even more impressive.  To move so effortlessly between so many such different pieces and to acquit himself with such distinction in such a range of styles is remarkable.  At a number of moments one was left very much wanting to hear future recitals with much more Ligeti, Messiaen and, most of all, a complete Pictures at an Exhibition, so richly textured and vivid were his readings of the two pictures featured in the programme.

We are promised a third Collage-Montage next year - I can't wait (hopefully it will fall during the part of the festival when I'm here).

For those who missed it, there is a broadcast in Radio 3's Lunchtime Concert slot on 24th June.  Sadly, it is difficult to see how this will fit, at an hour and a half, without cuts, which would be a massive mistake (even if they cut the spoken introductions, which would also be mistake).  Last year Aldeburgh made the event available as webcast and judging from the camera present, it looks like they'll do so again, which will be the best way to experience it.

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