Review: Piano Century, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, June 11

One hundred years has been central to this year’s Aldeburgh Festival and in addition to the Britten celebrations Artistic Director Pierre- Laurent Aimard and Guest Artistic Associate Colin Matthews have devised a number of concerts that focus on music written during the last century. Last night, in what was effectively a lecture-recital, Aimard considered and performed music by twenty of the most significant composers for the piano since 1913.

It was not a concert for the uncommitted and there were few concessions to popular taste, Stravinsky’s characteristic and inventive Piano-Rag- Music raising the most smiles. Nevertheless, there were treasures a-plenty and Aimard’s thoughtful and elegantly delivered guide to the pieces and their place in the history of the twentieth century, both musically and in the wider political context, was fascinating and enlightening.

Prokofkiev, Skryabin and Debussy represented the years of the first Great War, Skryabin’s fourth Prelude a striking example of the breakdown of tonality so many composers were exploring at the time. Austerity featured during the ‘20’s and Aimard’s comment concerning Webern’s extreme slimming-down to ‘make every note count’ made so much more sense of the subsequent Klavierstuck – less was most definitely more.

An intriguing piece by Henry Cowell involved caressing the piano wires to recreate the sounds of the ominous Irish spirits the Banshees and Helmut Lachenmann’s Guero also demonstrated an alternative way of producing sounds from a piano. Rather than risk his fingernails Aimard scraped the instrument with plastic credit cards and what the strongly left- wing composer would have made of this is not recorded! Aimard’s refined sense of humour and fun was again demonstrated when it came to Cage’s famous 4’33”. He talked about the philosophical, musical, existential, performing aspects of the work for – 4’33” – and moved on. A nice touch.

More challenging material followed – Stockhausen, Boulez, Kurtag, Carter and Ligeti with the younger generation represented by George Benjamin, Marco Stroppa and Tristan Murail. It was good to hear works by Colin Matthews and Harrison Birtwistle and to see the composers present and acknowledged. Matthews’ Berceuse tribute to Elliott Carter was notably elegant and touching.

The concert did not finish until 10.30pm and it was certainly a demanding evening but also a deeply rewarding one.

Gareth Jones