Pierre-Laurent Aimard – Birdsong at Aldeburgh

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Pierre-Laurent Aimard (photo Marco Borggreve)

This will be the eighth and final season of the Aldeburgh Festival to have Pierre-Laurent Aimard as its Artistic Director. To mark the occasion, the pianist has curated some unusual and intriguing concerts, and for the final year these revolve around his first instrument.

There will be a complete performance of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, but the event generating even more discussion is a performance of the complete Catalogue d’oiseaux, the collection of pieces for piano completed by Olivier Messiaen in 1958, the composer looking to directly replicate a rich variety of birdsong.

Aimard is presenting all of these, some 3 hours’ worth of music, in Snape and surrounding locations on Sunday, June 19. The day begins before first light, at 3:30am, with the audience given the opportunity to enjoy the dawn chorus, before Aimard begins his own performance just an hour later.

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Le traquet stapazin (Black-eared Wheatear) – the first of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux to be performed in Aimard’s sequence.

During the day the music will move out and about, taking in RSPB Minsmere, before returning to the Britten Studio in Snape Maltings, where the final performance is at 11:00pm. Pierre-Laurent generously allowed Arcana time to talk about the day of birds, his experiences with Messiaen around the music itself, his thoughts on the festival and his plans for the future.

When did you first visit Aldeburgh, and what were your first impressions?

I first visited Aldeburgh a certain amount of time ago, long before I took over the direction of the festival. Like everybody I was impressed by the magic of the landscape, and also by the acoustic at Snape Maltings, not to mention the open-mindedness of the audience. These things don’t change!

What gave you the idea of performing the ‘Catalogue d’oiseaux’ in this way? Is it because Aldeburgh lends itself as a venue for music about nature?

I played my first bird pieces when I was twelve, so it’s a long story of music that has always been very close to me. I loved those pieces from the start, but I always wondered how can we present them to make sense? The sonorities in each of them are so different. Does it make sense to play them in recital? I’m not sure, and so I think we have found the most genuine, natural environment for this music.

Have you been rehearsing at the appointed concert times, such as 4:30am?!

I played the pieces recently in Tokyo, and they were day concerts – so I realised that when you play at midday there it is like 4:00am in the Europe. Now I think I’m trained!

How else have you prepared for this performance? Have you been walking in the reeds around Snape?

I have been walking of course, at all kinds of moments, both day and night. The impact of the place, and the nature of how the music sounds, is very strong. I do feel that we have picked all the right locations for this, and especially in the case of Minsmere, which is absolutely the right location. Messiaen loved and studied birdsong, so there is nothing better.

I am amazed by the number of places there are in the UK dedicated to the observation of birds, and the number of people who are devoted to them. Clearly this is a thing where mankind realises what can be lost, and I think this is an important thing to consider in the performance.

It is great there is this increase of interest in nature, and I think Messiaen, as a sort of prophet, felt this keenly. He was seen as foolish and crazy when he wrote the Catalogue d’oiseaux in the late 1950s, and he was a lost, isolated man as a result.

However I notice a big difference in the listeners between then and now. I performed the whole set in Dresden recently, with two short breaks, and there was a fabulous level of concentration from the audience. It shows how artists can challenge people.

There are many levels of richness in the music itself, exploring the relationship between man and nature, and showing the new language in the 1950s that Messiaen found, in sound vocabulary. He didn’t do it with new innovations such as serial composition, but with his birdsongs.

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L’Alouette lulu (Woodlark)– the last of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux to be heard in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s sequence.

What did you learn from studying with Messiaen himself, or his wife Yvonne Loriod, about the ‘Catalogue d’oiseaux’?

Studying with Messiaen was like hearing the original language, and you can sense it in their fingers. It was just like he imagined and wrote the music, and he is the source – so it was an incredible privilege to experience this music from him. He loved to explain everything and he spoke a lot about each piece. He would imitate the birds with onomatopoeia, describing their habits as well as the songs they sang. Even the silences in this music should be just right, and alive.

Do you plan to record the complete ‘Catalogue d’Oiseaux’?

I would love to at some point. I have recorded small parts within my albums for Deutsche Grammophon on the music of Liszt, and Messiaen, but I would love to record it in full.

You have also programmed the complete Mikrokosmos to be played at the festival. Do you think this will especially appeal to those players who have encountered this music of Bartók as part of their learning?

The last Sunday will be my very last day as Director of the Aldeburgh Festival, so I wanted it to reflect the priorities we have shared. Discovery is a big part of that, so we finish with the sixth book of a huge project. The second priority is shared pedagogical progress, and discovering the shared accessible world of Bartók’s project. All kinds of pianists are taking part, so it is the principal of sharing with a community spirit. On the Saturday we will include new pieces alongside them.

These are the priorities – creation, pedagogy and community, the culmination of working with a marvellous team for 8 years.

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The view from Aldeburgh Music (c) Philip Vile

Do you see the Aldeburgh Festival as a unique institution?

Yes, both in its range and originality. I was the exception but I am an interpreter that loves creation. Jonathan Reekie, who chose me, saw an interpreter who was not from the UK, and saw that as a way to open up the festival. I try to be an interpreter, and not to stick to one religion. I have treated it rather like a composer, and I try to have a dialogue between ‘religions’ or ‘composers’.

Jonathan chose me because I could bring a presence from outside of England, and an eye on the UK artists that is not the same. That was the wish, to open up the game.

If you are in charge of a big legacy you are not serving it well by simply copying it. Clearly you have to try to bring in complements, differences, and sometimes controversy, to help it progress. I have looked to present the music of Britten in different contexts, and this year I chose Tippett, for the links of friendship, harmony, contradiction and consideration.

Do you think it is important to take classical music beyond those who already know it with the festival?

I think we have been very lucky with the team and community of programmers. This is not only a tradition but a necessity in the special way that artistry should be shared with many participants.

What are your plans for the future, post-Aldeburgh?

With my future plans I am sure of one thing. I loved doing this job, though mentally it took a lot of time and attention. I will be delighted to invest that back in to the piano, but I will have many activities other than that, which you will find out about!

Looking back on your time with the festival, what has been your most satisfying achievement?

It is not so important for me to think of personal achievements, but it is important that there were memorable moments for people watching. As far as I could analyse the comments, I think the festival has changed, but has stayed alive and continued to move forward. Fundamental elements have been retained and that was important, to respect the identity of an institution the best I could, but to have another level of reflection and excitement, to avoid a routine, provincial approach and sterility. I think we can say we have achieved that.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard will perform the complete Catalogue d’oiseaux at Aldeburgh Festival locations throughout Sunday 19 June. Tickets are sold out, but BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting the whole experience, beginning here and ending here

For more information on Pierre-Laurent Aimard, visit his website

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