Box office boo-boo but a great performance

March 15, 2016 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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While many punters voted no with their buttocks, those who did come to the Sydney City Recital Hall last night for two hours of Messiaen went home rewarded, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.The empty seats, rows of them, were predictable, especially when it looked as though the single work, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus (20 Contemplations of the Christ Child) would run its two hours without a break. However, French pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, relented and declared half time after the first 10 contemplations. Not only did many members of the audience need a toilet break, but Aimard could have done with a pick-me-up or a quick shower – such was his relentless activity in the first half.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard   Photo: Marco Borggreve

Pierre-Laurent Aimard Photo: Marco Borggreve

Although it is difficult to assess a pianist who is playing unfamiliar music, Aimard shone though as being quite remarkable. His stamina, superlative technique and deep understanding of the music won over the doubters early in the performance. From then on it was a case of sit back and witness a master at work, a pianist who was able to make the piano roar like a tornado and then immediately tickle up runs in pianissimo that were just audible. His style at the keyboard was all his own, too. He used his body weight to produce power and flung his hands away after staccato cords. But none of this was theatrical. Students of piano could benefit by taking on board Aimard’s hand positions with arched fingers, and the way he leans on the keys to create volume.

I’d love to hear Aimard lay into Prokofiev, Debussy or Ravel.

Now to the music. Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is regarded as a standout among 20th Century composers. He produced a unique style of atonality by inventing his own modal scales which distance his compositions from the mainstream works that attract audiences. That said, once you subject yourself to a few sessions of Messiaen the tonal discomfort starts to recede and you find order in what first sounded like chaos. You may even detect a nod to jazz harmonies and you’ll start to look out for musical imitations of birdsong and bells  – Messiaen’s hallmarks. You may also share the composer’s practice of equating harmony with colour. However, you’ll never find Messiaen on a CD of ‘easy listening’ or playing quietly in a elevator. It isn’t that kind of music.

Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus was originally commissioned as music to go with a Radio France nativity play. The play was abandoned before production, but even if it had been completed, the 20 movement Vingt would have overwhelmed it. The real inspiration behind the music was Messiaen’s love for Yvonne Loriod, a young student of his who later became his second wife. She was a brilliant pianist and able to handle the outrageous demands of Vingt. It was said that she could play it from memory, something that modern-day pianists, including Aimard, will not risk.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Each of the contemplations has program notes written by Messiaen. The movements vary in length between  two and fifteen minutes, and they all have deeply religious themes – emanating from Messiaen’s staunch Catholic faith. While some are quiet and reflective, others push the boundaries of piano technique and piano sound. At the Recital Hall concert the piano took a pounding that only a Steinway could tolerate and not loose it’s tune, or worse, a string.

While Aimard was an excellent choice to perform this larger-than-life work, the connection goes deeper than bringing in a French pianist to play music by a French composer. Aimard first came to prominence by winning a Messiaen competition when he was just 16. Their subsequent friendship lasted for the rest of Messiaen’s life

Right at the end of the final movement (Contemplation of the Church of Love) Aimard remained hunched over the keyboard until well after the last sound had faded. He appeared to be praying. The audience joined him in the silence until he turned to shake the hand of his page-turner and stood up to enthusiastic applause.

Sydney City Recital Hall 14 March 2016


Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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