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French precision: Aimand.

Good, and Good For You
By B.A. Nilsson

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 17

Talent is talent and transcends nationalism, so Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Troy Music Hall recital last week ranged effectively through the music of five composers born in five different countries, each interpretation as compelling as the one before.

But the sequence of works proceeded so shrewdly that when this French-born pianist reached the final work, Book One of Debussy’s Préludes, it was as triumphant as it was inevitable. In other words, it wasn’t just some kind of Gallic-centric phenomenon here; it was, as the French probably wouldn’t put it, the whole shebang.

Debussy couldn’t have painted the tone pictures he came up with without the music of Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin in his ear; Elliott Carter may deny it, but he clearly paid attention to the music of Debussy.

I’d like to think that the more hip parts of this country don’t need their advance publicity to apologize for presenting music by Carter, a still-living contemporary of Aaron Copland (who was slightly older) and Leonard Bernstein (ten years younger). But this is the fusty Capital Region, where we quail at the possibility of dissonance. Based on the intermission murmurs of the small, grey crowd that attended this concert, the upcoming Two Diversions by Carter was anticipated as the musical equivalent of cod liver oil—it might prove to be good for you in some mysterious way, but at least it would be survivable.

The nervous nellies squinched their faces and swallowed what turned out to be a fascinating, persuasive seven-minute work built on classical forms and building to an exciting finish. It opens with a slow ground over which we tour a melodic sequence based on intervals of seconds and thirds; the rhythm develops, sometimes adding a backbeat, sometimes seeming to vanish briefly. For a while, the ground even traded places with the melodic figures. A tonal center grows as the first Diversion finishes; the second seizes that center as part of a hyperkinetic re-realization of the ground and intervals that came before.

It set the stage nicely for the Debussy Préludes, but, just as Aimard saved that for last, so shall I. You could call the first half of the program (Mozart-Beethoven-Chopin) the crowd-pleaser, but Mozart’s sonatas often offer more challenges than the casual listener is prepared to meet.

Certainly his Sonata No. 16, a late-in-(abbreviated)-life work, finds his lines leaner and ideas more rarefied than what came before. Aimard made a short sonata shorter by dropping the exposition repeat, but I’ll heretically confess that I didn’t miss it. I was fascinated by the pianist’s ability to use pauses as dynamic devices, further enhancing a work that never seeks to overwhelm you with sound.

Even his choice of a Beethoven sonata was offbeat. Like Bill Evans, Beethoven enjoyed writing pieces for the women in his life, and the Sonata No. 24 is subtitled “For Thérèse” in order to suck up to a dame. It’s a brief work densely packed with fresh ideas, and Aimard brought to it an Alfred Brendel-like sense of urgency that nevertheless seemed unhurried. Even his dash for the finish in the quick second (and last) movement made sense.

That sense of urgency also informed the Barcarolle by Chopin, one of my favorite works by that composer. The beautiful cascade of trills that brings the whole thing together at the end sounded like Aimard had four hands going.

Want a triumphant finish for the first half? Don’t play Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61. But if you’re heading for Carter-land, it’s a perfect prelude, thoughtfully constructed and very melodic without getting too show-offish. And it was fascinating to hear how much this work prefigured Debussy’s.

Debussy’s Préludes advanced the concept of programmatic miniatures into realms of sound poetry where the piano had never before ventured, if I may wax hyperbolic. These whimsically titled pieces have such transparency about them that you’ll forget you’re listening to music as they draw you in, whether it be the blurred majesty of the “Sunken Cathedral” or the “Sounds and Scents of the Evening Air”—the latter demonstrating Aimard’s ability to use a pause as a dramatic device.

He paused and pedaled and trilled and otherwise caressed sounds out of that piano that seemed to originate elsewhere, so transcendent did he make this music. From the simple beauty of “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” to the syncopated dance of “Minstrels,” there’s a wide range of sound and emotion available in this set. In “What the West Wind Saw,” the pianist was suitably animated, fueled by the feisty chromaticism, while he gave “The Interrupted Serenade” a snappy, Albeniz-like sound.

Despite repeated calls and an enthusiasm that caused the audience to lumber to its feet, Aimard gave no encore, which was a good choice: it was a pleasure to leave the hall with the Debussy still ringing in my ears.

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