"It is fascinating to work with living composers," says pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. "There are so many who were abandoned by society during their lifetimes, so it is marvelous to bring satisfaction to a living composer."
The pianist's fascination with modern music, from composers past and present, will be on display May 17 when he performs works by Elliott Carter and Charles Ives. It's a fascination that was sparked when Aimard was eight and began attending concerts in his hometown of Lyon. Since that initial boyhood exposure, the man György Ligeti declared the "leading performer of contemporary piano music" has become a dedicated ambassador and tireless champion of new music.
Performing contemporary works poses different problems than those found in tackling repertoire staples, says Aimard. While the pressure of living up to, for example, Emil Gilels or Sviatoslav Richter performing the Brahms second piano concerto is not easy, the challenges of interpreting new compositions and working with living composers are equally intense. "The goal is to try to give life to a piece, but that freedom is a challenge," Aimard explains. "You have to be very disciplined. The duties are not the same when performing new and old works: With new works, you don't have generations of performers behind you, but you have the composer behind you. You have to do a lot of pioneer work‹and the aim is high and never easy to achieve."
Aimard regards Zankel Hall, which he describes as "a hall planned for other music," as particularly suitable for Carter's Two Diversions and Night Fantasies and Ives's "Concord" Sonata, adding that he doesn't want to program the more traditional repertoire he might play in Isaac Stern Auditorium. "In my opinion," says Aimard, "Ives is the greatest dead American composer and Carter the greatest living, but that does not mean they are the most often played or the most loved by audiences. So I am happy to participate in the fight for this music in New York."
The Ives Sonata is one of the pieces that has had the most impact on Aimard's musical development. "I first played the sonata in 1974 and it still fascinates me," he says. "This is one of the most important pieces in my life, so I thought why not play it here? I also wanted to perform Carter's music, which is so fantastic and important, but for different reasons. I have played his music for years, but I feel more ready to perform it now."
Aimard attributes the differences in playing contemporary and traditional music, in part, to their "different goals, attitudes, and messages. I want to be in tune with my era," he says. "We are now incredibly open culturally and have the opportunity to experience lots of different kinds of music. It is a fantastic chance to live a fascinating adventure and open our minds and culture as much as possible."
After his interest in contemporary music was first piqued as a young boy, Paris proved fertile ground for further exploration. Aimard studied at the Paris Conservatory with Yvonne Loriod, developing a close relationship with her husband, Olivier Messiaen. In 1977, at age 19, Pierre Boulez invited Aimard to become a founding member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, a collaboration that lasted 18 years.
Aimard believed that the chance to work with the Ensemble would be an invaluable opportunity and joined because "it seemed the best way to serve this music with Boulez and this excellent group." But to avoid being pigeonholed so early in his career, Aimard negotiated a flexible contract that allowed him to retain his independence and continue studying and performing a variety of repertoire. Thus he managed to avoid the potential pitfalls of both embracing a solo career and focusing exclusively on one genre of repertoire at a young age.
During the 1980s Aimard also began a close collaboration with Ligeti, who chose him to record his complete works and dedicated several etudes to him. Aimard continues to channel much of his energy into contemporary music, especially that which he feels is neglected and misunderstood, but also continues to regularly perform and record repertoire staples. His varied discography, which includes the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and a recent release of Debussy's Études and Images, reflects this commitment.
Aimard explains that he feels very much a part of what he calls the "Simon Rattle generation," empathizing with Rattle because of his open-minded approach as "someone who has tried to forge his experience with a lot of different ways of conducting, with period instruments, with symphonic or operatic works, for example. He also has convictions and concerns about the transition today's institutions are undergoing."
Aimard believes that concert programmers and managers are far more willing to experiment with different kinds of music than their colleagues 20 years ago. "Even traditional halls with traditional audiences want to open some doors. But you have to analyze the situation, the type of audience expected, and the artistic goals of your partners. You then choose the appropriate program. You can't just give up and say it's impossible to fight for anything except the war horses. But you also can't just close your eyes and say, 'I will only play what I want,' because you ignore the realities of audiences. You must consider the people in the hall you are playing for.
"Still, I find it much more satisfying to please a great living composer, even in a very modest concert setting with a small audience," Aimard continues, "than to be successful in a large hall with lots of recognition if the composer is dead. After all, the composer is a better judge than the rest of society about what he wants."
Vivien Schweitzer is a freelance writer and Gramophone correspondent.