Piano Recital: Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Schubert / Kurtág / Beethoven

Tonhalle Zurich, 2017-05-23

3-star rating

2017-05-27 — Original posting

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (© Roger Mastroianni)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (© Roger Mastroianni)



The French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was born 1957 in Lyon. As a musician, starting at age 12 already, he grew up in the entourage of Yvonne Loriod (1924 – 2010, then at the Paris Conservatory) and her husband, the composer Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992). He received further education from Maria Curcio (1920 – 2009) and György Kurtág (*1926). Another composer, Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016) chose him as soloist in the Ensemble intercontemporain, where he worked with and premiered works by notable contemporary composers, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007), George Benjamin (*1960), Marco Stroppa (*1959), and György Ligeti (1923 – 2006).

Aimard now teaches as professor at the CNSMDP (Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris), as well as at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz in Cologne. At the same time, he is pursuing an international career as pianist and recording artist. His primary focus is in contemporary music—in particular, music of the composers he worked with. Several composers, most notably György Kurtág and György Ligeti, have dedicated works to Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

But his repertoire also covers music of the classical period, as well as works by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685- 1750).

The concert had been moved from the big hall of the Tonhalle to the small hall.

Schubert: Piano Sonata No.18 in G major, op.78, D.894

Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) wrote his Piano Sonata No.18 in G major, op.78, D.894 in 1826. It is the last piano sonata that was published during the composer’s lifetime. The three sonatas that followed (No.19 in C minor, D.958; No.20 in A major, D.959; No.21 in B♭ major, D 960) were all published after the composer’s death.

The publisher initially named the first movement of the G major sonata Fantasia—some people still use this name for the entire sonata. Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) apparently called this sonata the “most perfect in form and conception”, and a more recent commentator (Imogen Cooper) claimed that this is one of the few “entirely serene sonatas by Schubert”. The composition features the following movements:

  1. Molto moderato e cantabile
  2. Andante
  3. Menuetto: Allegro moderato — Trio
  4. Allegretto

The Performance

It might be true that in 1826, Schubert wasn’t constantly thinking about his impending or imminent death. Still this is clearly a late sonata by the composer, then 29 years old. The basic atmosphere in this sonata may well be (almost) entirely serene, and the composition may be perfect in form and conception. However, I think that this is not the whole story.

Schubert’s life was never easy. One can find signs of the burden of his earthly life (as a school teacher, most of the time) in most of his compositions. True, the ruptures, the occasional, often sudden views into the abyss aren’t quite as conspicuous, as prominent as in the later, posthumous sonatas. Nevertheless, I can still find these signs also in the G major sonata. Isn’t it even likely that Schubert was fighting the hardship of his life exactly through the perfection, the serenity in this sonata?

I. Molto moderato e cantabile

In my opinion, there was no sign of internal, subliminal conflicts in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s interpretation. At best, there was maybe just a slight hint in very few of the general rests. Almost throughout, I found Aimard’s performance devoted to, aiming at the beauty of sound, trying to explore, exploit the excellent sonority of the Steinway D concert grand. I base this finding on his perfectly controlled keyboard touch, the well-cultured legato—but equally on the fact that he avoided dynamic extremes whenever possible. ppp and pp were played as p at best, maybe in order not to sacrifice any sonority? Similarly, also ff and fff were always very civilized, never exploited the full potential of the instrument.

Sure, one could not deny the beauty, the esthetics in his playing and interpretation, despite occasional over-pedaling. Aimard shaped long, harmonious arches, singing phrases, always with perfect balance between the hands and voices. However, I don’t think the music is nearly as care-free and devoid of conflicts—already in this first movement. In my view, the length of the semiquaver chains in the second part of the exposition, as well as the breadth of the fff climax in the development part are clear signs of the composer’s desperate fight against the adversities of his existence.

At the “other end of the scale”, the movement does also feature intimate pp moments. I felt that the pianist sacrificed these, too, in favor of sound esthetics. Finally, the general rests in the coda were entirely suppressed by means of the sustain pedal.

II. Andante

Yes, the Andante was earnest, even featured intensity and ff eruptions—but there was no sign of despair. This prevented the short cantilenas in major tonality to have the desired, contrasting effect.

III. Menuetto: Allegro moderato — Trio

The Menuetto is of course much more than an early classical, harmless dance movement. But also here, the contrasts (pp adjacent to ff) were softened.

I liked the Trio more than the Menuetto part, even if it wasn’t exactly ppp, as requested by the score: in Aimard’s swaying agogics I could certainly sense intimacy and intense contemplation.

IV. Allegretto

Aimard played the last movement attacca. To me, this option is not conclusive, as the atmosphere is quite different between the two movements. Even though Aimard played from the score, he faced a couple (mostly minor) mishaps (in one case, he played some extraneous 1.5 bars before returning to the score). In a live concert, this is certainly not a disaster—still, I think that both for the listener, as well as for the artist, the coherence of the movement was suffering from this. Oddly, this happened in a piece where Schubert is fighting against his fate by means of the sheer length of the movement.

To summarize: overall, I found Aimard’s view this sonata as classical piece, rather than an early romantic one.

Kurtág: Passio sine nomine and other compositions

The Hungarian composer György Kurtág (*1926) is both a pianist and one of Hungary’s most prominent composers of recent times. He also was teaching piano at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest between 1967 and 1993. Kurtág’s wife, Márta, is also a pianist. Kurtág was born in the Hungarian-speaking part of Romania, but spent most of his life in Budapest. After the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, he spent a few years in Paris, but returned to Hungary in 1959. Since 2002 on, the Kurtágs live near Bordeaux, France.


The concert announcement, as well as the handout simply mentioned “Passio sine nomine and other works” as the first composition after the intermission. Pierre-Laurent Aimard verbally announced the titles he would play—in a single, global announcement, in which he read the titles off the sheet music. It was impossible for the listeners to memorize the titles from this announcement. Despite Aimard’s clear German pronunciation and his good voice, it was even hard to understand the titles, as these included Hungarian names.

Guessing the Titles…

Here’s what I could extract from the rear of the hall, without the slightest guarantee for accuracy or even remote resemblance to the actual titles (“XXXX” and “???” obviously are words / names / segments that I failed to understand / write down):

  • Und so geschah es (And so it happened)
  • Leises Zwiegespräch (Whispered dialog)
  • In großer Liebe von XXXX (in true love from XXXX)
  • Wie soll ich? (How should I?)
  • Passio sine nomine (Passion without name)
  • Aus der Ferne (From a distance)
  • (???) in memoriam (???) — dedicated to András Schiff
  • (???) Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998)
  • JSB (obviously a reference to Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • Postface for Zoltán Kocsis (1952 – 2016)
  • (???) Hommage for Zoltán Kocsis

So, if my counting was correct, there should have been 11 pieces. All were played from sheets (most likely handwriting). And all these were very recent, even brand-new compositions. Passio sine nomine is dedicated to Márta Kurtag and to Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Aimard stated that Kurtág’s homages for the late Zoltán Kocsis were also his personal homages for the pianist and conductor. Nobody in the audience was able to memorize the titles correctly and on the spot. On top of the fact that, Aimard played most/many of the pieces attacca.

Guessing the Sequence…

I think it’s really bad if as a listener one cannot even name the music. While listening, I tried very hard to recognize the transitions between the pieces, and to assign them to the fragmentary titles from my notes. With plenty of uncertainty, I could guess maybe 8 – 9 segments (over around 18 minutes), but some transitions could just as well have been rests. I tried assigning these “segments” to title—and that was an almost complete failure. For instance, lacking orientation, I was not able to identify a reference (fragments from a chorale melody?) to Bach (JSB)—though, of course, I expected that “quote” to be heavily altered / alienated in Kurtág’s writing.

What I identified as reference to Alfred Schnittke (1934 – 1998)—the hammered basses in the Violin Sonata No.2, “Quasi una sonata” (1968) appeared towards the end, probably in the second-to-last piece, but had been announced prior toJSB“.

After the “Schnittke quote”, there was a short, harmonious segment. Then, quasi attacca, Aimard continued with Beethoven’s Appassionata. That transition was so quick and unexpected that I first asked myself whether this is a Beethoven quote in a piece by Kurtág. Obviously (in the aftermath), it wasn’t. But people around me were very confused as well. In think the sequence played did not correspond to the announcement. Was this on purpose? Was the sequence random / spontaneously decided upon during execution?

The Performance

Quite obviously, Pierre-Laurent Aimard feels completely at home in this music. One could tell from his body language, his mimics, facial expression that he lives in Kurtág’s pieces. The foundation for most of the pieces, even when the note values are small, is a kind of measured, “timeless” pace. Much of the music is in a single voice. On the surface, the music is dominated by seemingly random notes, spread over the keyboard with mostly large jumps. However, by means of the sustain pedal (maybe also the middle pedal?), these discrete notes form a legato and overlapping resonances, harmonies, harmonic progression even.

The music is reflective almost throughout, sometimes almost solemn, often serene. Despite the huge jumps, the result is narrating, almost pictorial melodies that invite to reflect, almost meditate even. Dissonant clusters mark pain, suffering. It’s definitely very interesting music: it’s a pity that there wasn’t more of it!

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, op.57, “Appassionata

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote his Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, op.57, “Appassionata between 1804 and 1806. It is maybe Beethoven’s most famous sonata from the middle period—so well-known that I’ll save my words here, just giving the movements:

  1. Allegro assai
  2. Andante con moto
  3. Allegro ma non troppo — Presto

The Performance

Mutatis mutandis, my remarks about the Schubert sonata above also apply to Aimard’s interpretation of the Appassionata.

I. Allegro assai

As expected (from the Schubert sonata above), the interpretation reflected the big, full sonority of the Steinway D—far, far away from what Beethoven could possibly have imagined. But certainly, Aimard played out (and focused on) the big arches, the overall structure.

II. Andante con moto

Aimard did not over-celebrate the theme for the variations, yet kept it expressive, avoiding “emotional dryness”. In the variations, he avoided rhythmic ruptures / hard transitions, and he equally avoided exaggerations: the interpretation wasn’t dramatic at any point. The best and most expressive part to me was the variation with the demisemiquaver chains.

III. Allegro ma non troppo — Presto

The real appassionato part of the sonata is in this movement. But again, Aimard avoided extremes, focused on the flow, particularly in the sections with the semiquaver figures. And as in the Schubert sonata, this movement (also played from the score) wasn’t free from mishaps.

Overall, I found Aimard’s interpretation to be classic, inconspicuous, certainly anything but spectacular.


Pierre-Laurent Aimard presented two encores:

  • From the Études pour piano (Premier livre)” by György Ligeti (1923 – 2006): Étude No.6, “Automne à Varsovie: also here, I found the articulation fluent, harmonious, forming dramatic arches. Here again, that’s where Aimard is “at home”!
  • Aimard ended the evening with another, short composition by György Kurtág (*1926): as I understood, a piece for the birthday of a child. One must play that piece entirely with the second finger of the left hand (or alternatively the second finger of the right hand)—and of course again with the help of the sustain pedal. It’s a nice little gem, fully in line with the previous pieces by the same composer.


Overall, I feel that compositions from the classic period had too much weight in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s concert program. The pieces by Kurtág (and the encores) clearly were the best, most fascinating part of the concert. One or two shorted sonatas in favor of more music by Kurtág (and Ligeti) would have yielded a far better concert experience.


For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review

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