Aimard presents a memorable afternoon with Debussy’s Preludes

Mon Apr 08, 2013 at 12:45 pm

By Kyle MacMillan

Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed Debussy’s complete Preludes Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center. Photo: A Newton

Flaxen-haired girls, steps in the snow, submerged cathedrals and dancing fairies. Claude Debussy suggests these images and many more, as memories, imaginings and impressions commingle and infuse his 24 Préludes, which rank among the French composer’s most influential works for the keyboard.

Numerous soloists have recorded these works, including notable sets by Paul Jacobs and Krystian Zimerman. One of the latest additions to this discography was released in October on the Deutsche Grammophon label by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who offered a spellbinding performance of the complete Préludes Sunday afternoon at Orchestra Hall.

While this Symphony Center Presents event was obviously timed to support the French pianist’s new album, it also marked to the month the 100th anniversary of the completion of these pianistic gems, which Debussy composed as two books written three years apart, each in a matter of months. But despite having reached the century mark, they have lost little of their original sense of innovative daring and musical freshness.

Unlike previous sets of preludes by Johann Sebastian Bach and Frédéric Chopin, Debussy’s contributions to this form are not organized by key signatures. Instead, they are placed in an order that the composer – more interested in aesthetic ideals than fixed structures – felt best suited the flow and interrelationships of the individual pieces.

Although these often intricate pieces put considerable technical demands on the performer, Debussy was interested virtuosic displays not for their own sake but how they could serve his broader aesthetic goals. Indeed, the Préludes require not so much a piano interpreter as a kind of keyboard conjurer who can subtly shape the often ever-changing colors, textures and moods that are at the heart of this music, and Aimard proved to be up to the task.

Although these works, when performed as a complete set, do come together to tell a larger story however ambiguous, they are nonetheless miniature worlds all their own, and Aimard succeeded in bringing forth and elucidating the distinctive identity of each. Without ever losing the music’s rhythmic pulse or forward thrust, he brought a kind of organic freedom to his phrasing, jumping on the flying passages in the fast sections with spontaneous élan and lingering almost imperceptibly over telling reflective moments. Aimard also conveyed the innate French quality of this music, the elusive sense of “temps perdu (lost time)” that was also so essential to Marcel Proust’s famous seven-volume novel.

Highlights abounded Sunday afternoon: The quiet simplicity and feeling of wintry barrenness that Aimard achieved in Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow); the slow, picturesque grandeur of La cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral); the comic flair that animated Général Lavine – eccentric and, finally, the explosive energy and cascading fingerwork that made it easy to envision sparks flying and colors bursting in Feux d’artifice (Fireworks).

Put simply, Aimard’s playing was suitably varied, nuanced and wonderfully evocative. In all, a memorable afternoon.

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