A decade ago, the French pianist and poly-math Pierre-Laurent Aimard announced that he was ‘very bored to live in a world that contains so much music that wants to please the masses’. It was a remark that might have dropped from the lips of the late Pierre Boulez, the part-pseud, part-genius who presided over an aristocracy of the avant-garde lavishly funded by the French government.
Aimard was still in his teens when he was appointed pianist of Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain in 1976. He made his name performing ruthlessly atonal music. In 2009 he was a surprise choice as director of the Aldeburgh Festival, where he devoted a series to the music of Helmut Lachenmann, whose ‘sound events are organised so that the manner in which they are generated is at least as important as the resultant acoustic qualities themselves’.
This made the Guardian happy. ‘Aimard has ensured that the provincialism Britten himself dreaded has no place here,’ it declared. Maybe so, but Aimard insisted that he was ‘not a priest in the Britten religion …on the contrary’. That was a brave thing to say. ‘Ben’ loved dropping people who’d offended him (easily done). If he were still alive it’s hard to imagine him being on speakers with Pierre-Laurent.
It’s all irrelevant now, though, because this is the pianist’s last Aldeburgh Festival and he’s leaving to applause. The priesthood was won over when, for the Britten centenary in 2013, Aimard staged Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach, where much of the opera is set. It was a glorious success.
This year’s centrepiece is almost as ambitious: Aimard’s own performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux — a solo piano marathon based on birdsong that lasts nearly three hours.
On Sunday, 19 June, the audience will arrive at 3.30 a.m. for the pre-dawn chorus. Aimard starts playing as the sun rises; then there’s more Messiaen at lunchtime; a guided walk with the RSPB and Aimard; another slice of the Catalogue d’oiseaux at a nature reserve (‘dress code strictly sturdy’); and the last pages played to an audience sitting on cushions in a darkened hall at 11 p.m.
This is an intensely complex and virtuosic score; Messiaen asks the soloist to depict 77 species of bird. ‘It must be incredibly difficult to perform,’ I find myself saying fatuously when I meet Aimard.
‘I’m sure,’ he replies. ‘I’ve never played at four thirty in the morning before.’
But what about those thickets of notes? ‘Well, yes, it is difficult because you have to be incredibly precise and inspiring and do justice to the lights and flavours and Messiaen’s emotion. I remember him telling me that he cried when it was l’heure de midi when there is a long, long silence. He cried not during the birdsongs but during the silence. I shall never forget that.’
Aimard had been wondering for years how the Catalogue d’oiseaux could be presented to an audience. ‘Though it doesn’t look it, this is a revolutionary piece. In a single concert you wouldn’t feel the essence of this music, which is birdsong, or the unexpected action of the bird soloists. Each sings from a different space, their time is the time of nature, the circle of the hours.
‘But Aldeburgh, because it is so open, gave me the chance to start from the music itself. So we walk from place to place, hearing the real birds combine with the music, creating an atmosphere in which to nourish this huge piece.’
Aimard sounds carefree as these thoughts tumble out in faultless English. Yet he’s set himself the hurdle of displaying monumental virtuosity in great gulps of music from dawn to midnight. And he’s not one of those pianists who appear to play effortlessly. He wrestles with his part, drenched in sweat; I remember a Brahms First Piano Concerto which looked disconcertingly like a fight to the death.
Does he push himself too hard? ‘This is my way of living. Personally I respect people who take it more easy, but I consider that I’m not on earth to be lazy.’
And he hasn’t been. In addition to the Messiaen, Aldeburgh offers us a St Matthew Passion by John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir; Bartok’s Mikrokosmos performed by pianists ranging from grade one students to Aimard himself; a week of Brahms masterclasses by Thomas Quasthoff; Beethoven sonatas from Emanuel Ax.
There’s plenty of contemporary music, too, though depressingly a lot of it is drawn from the small pool of ‘safe’ composers that also serves the stodgy BBC Proms. (Is it now against the law to stage a British music festival not featuring Colin Matthews?) ‘We definitely do not live in an era of avant-garde creation, and it’s possible to feel frustrated about that,’ says Aimard.
On the other hand, we do live in an era in which we can hear the same musicians — the ‘period band for all periods’, Les Siècles — perform Rameau’s Daphnis et Eglé and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé in one concert and Bach’s Magnificat and Steve Reich’s Tehillim in another.
That juxtaposition has Aimard written all over it, as does a ‘Tippett & Britten’ series that asks whether the former, despite the embarrassing hippie trappings of his late work, was the greater English composer. What a cheeky question for a Frenchman to leave hanging in the air — and in Aldeburgh of all places.
The Aldeburgh Festival 2016 runs until 26 June. Pierre-Laurent Aimard's performance of Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux will be broadcast on Radio 3.