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Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard shines through the gloom

The weather in Toronto on Sunday afternoon was overcast and rainy - perfect, as it turned out, for Pierre-Laurent Aimard's piano recital at the Royal Conservatory's Koerner Hall. And although the gloomy program he chose to play may have discouraged some people from attending, the modest audience he attracted was well rewarded.

However, I got the distinct impression that Aimard isn't too keen on audiences. He requested that no one applaud between pieces - and if there was any audience noise in the hall, he patiently waited until he had absolute silence before he began playing. Evidently, he felt no need to impress anyone by memorizing his program: Mostly, he played from the printed page.

The 54-year-old French pianist's strong suit is late-20th-century music, and he has championed such stridently modernist composers as Pierre Boulez and Gyorgy Ligeti. However, there was nothing like that on Sunday's recital - rather, Aimard's repertoire was historically bounded by Richard Wagner and Alban Berg. The program was study in the harmonic experimentation that took place from about 1850 up to the collapse of tonality in the 1920s.

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Franz Liszt was at the forefront of these stylistic developments, so it's not surprising that the composer figured prominently in Aimard's recital. The pianist opened with the first of two pieces Liszt wrote entitled La lugubre gondola. In this otherworldly barcarole, Liszt captured the solemnity of a funeral procession on Venice's Grand Canal - and Aimard communicated this idea through a sombre, gently swaying rhythm.

Other works by Liszt on the first half underscored the composer's forward-looking harmonic inclinations. Nuages gris ("Gray Clouds"), in Aimard's hands, was amorphous but palpitating with mysterious life. And Unstern! Sinistre, Disastro (a strange trilingual title, literally meaning "Dark Star! Sinister, Disaster") was starkly dissonant, marked by a long crescendo to a thundering fortissimo.

Wagner was a surprising inclusion on this program: His operas so completely overshadow his other works that his piano music is all but forgotten today. Aimard dusted off Eine Sonate fur das Album von Frau M.W., a slender one-movement work that is a harbinger of his opera Tristan und Isolde, and filled it with rich, vibrant sonorities.

More substantial were two one-movement sonatas from the early 20th century: Berg's Sonata Op. 1 and Alexander Scriabin's Sonata No. 9 - the so-called Black Mass.

Aimard wisely played the Berg without repeating the opening section (as the score indicates). And while he ably captured the restlessness of Berg's unstable harmonic language, he didn't always bring clarity to the complex textures of this music.

The Scriabin was more successful. Here, Aimard clearly distinguished foreground from background, and brought the work's dramatic features into high contrast. As well, his trills were like bolts of lightning.

In the first half of his recital, Aimard laid his formidable credentials as a pianist on the keyboard. He has fingers that are made of steel (when he wants them to be), a technique so advanced that even the most difficult passages sound supple and fluid, and a clear sense of structure that generates long, powerful lines. And for this program, at least, he favoured a generous use of the sustaining pedal, to maximize resonance.

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He called on all these resources for Liszt's Sonata in B Minor, which filled the second half.

From a pianist's perspective, this sprawling work was probably the most demanding thing on the program. Yet at the same time it put the listener on firm ground: It's intense and grandiose music, to be sure, but not inscrutable. Happily, Aimard played down the sentimental aspects of the sonata, and emphasized its architectural form. The result was both thrilling and satisfying.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

  • At Koerner Hall
  • In Toronto on Sunday

Special to The Globe and Mail

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