Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard is renowned as one of the most searching musical intelligences around, and it comes as a surprise that he had never recorded any Liszt prior to this impressive collection. It is called the Liszt “project” because he has embedded other music that he regards as Liszt’s musical descendants—inevitably a personal choice—amidst the Liszt works. These Aimard-determined inheritors of the Liszt cosmos are Bartók, Berg, Messiaen, Ravel, Scriabin, contemporary electracoustic specialist Marco Stroppa, and Wagner—one cannot quibble with any of these names, except to observe that he has already recorded elsewhere Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and the Elliott Carter Night Fantasies, works over which the shadow of Liszt falls even more directly. Aimard’s approach to Liszt is primarily subtle, emphasising the harmonic and melodic distinctiveness, and gestural sophistication, of his music over the virtuosity. He can nonetheless unleash great strength when the music calls for it, in particular in Liszt’s powerhouse Piano Sonata.
This 2-CD set is presented in the fashion of a concert program; the first CD contains the three Sonatas: Liszt’s, Berg’s, and Scriabin’s Ninth—the remarkable, unsettling Black Mass. These highly dramatic exercises in intellectual compression are separated by three of Liszt’s most gnomic and veiled utterances: la Lugubre Gondola, Nuages Gris, and Unstern! Sinistre. The second CD is quite different: if CD1 was the cerebral, brooding, concert half, CD2 is the nocturnal, dreamlike, antithesis, opening with the Threnody Aux Cyprès de la Villa d’Este, and continuing with Bartók’s dirge, Nénie. Aimard characterises this second program as journeying from “darkness into light”—I don’t quite see that, but it certainly embraces a huge range. He includes two bird-pieces, Stroppa’s astonishing Tangata manu (“Birdman”) and Messiaen’s le Traquet Strapazin from the Catalogue d’Oiseaux. Neither of these works is an easy listen, admittedly, but in my view the experience of Aimard’s superlative pianism transcends considerations of style. The second disc also includes two “water” pieces, Liszt’s own les Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este, and Ravel’s homage Jeux d’Eaux, and ends with the melancholy Vallée d’Obermann from Liszt’s Années de Pélerinage—the contrast between the two tracery-like fountain-pieces and the poetic picture of introspection, with the cool, angular, Messiaen as buffer, is highly effective.
Aimard’s accomplishment is to have emphasised the intelligence and pensiveness of Liszt’s music, and demonstrated how later composers built on this foundation. I’ve rarely been as stimulated or enriched by such a recital; the recorded sound is equally marvellous—one can hear every nuance of Aimard’s stunning pianism. A salutary release.