August 30, 2012 / 10:18 AM / 6 years ago

French pianist admires Debussy as "hedonist" of sound

LONDON (Reuters) - Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard describes Claude Debussy as a “hedonist” of sound, and perhaps that’s what makes both of them so French.

“I know that if I use these words in this country, or in Germany, this would be interpreted in another way,” the voluble 54-year-old titan of the modern piano repertoire, as well as the classics, told Reuters over coffee at a London hotel.

“In France, not at all,” he said, adding that Debussy was admired and appreciated for his “deep intensity, soft sensuality and incredible precision”.

Aimard chose his words carefully during an interview while on a visit to pick out a piano for a BBC Proms recital on September 3 in which he will play the second book of the late-19th, early 20th-century composer’s famous preludes.

The first book contains some of Debussy’s most popular works, such as “La Cathedrale Engloutie” (The Submerged Cathedral), which the Japanese composer Isao Tomita turned into a 1970s hit in an arrangement for Moog synthesizer.

Aimard has recorded both books but the second is the gnarlier of the two, which is perhaps why Aimard - who loves nothing more than to tackle a fiendishly difficult etude by his one-time close friend, the late Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti - will play it at Cadogan Hall.

“Why No. 2? Because of the development of everything in the second book, how it stretches in terms of harmonies, space, ambiguity,” he said.

“Debussy was one of the three big modernist composers, with Stravinsky and Schoenberg, but without making a revolution, almost discreetly. You could say he’s deep, but in a tradition of hedonism in music.

“He adored food, women and he adored music, and when you hear his music you hear sounds that are incredibly well put together and highly inspiring.”

Aesthetics, or what he calls “the pleasure of sounds”, mean a lot to Aimard, who said that next year he is going to be taking a sabbatical.

“I will make a tour, playing Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms ... and the sabbatical is afterwards. So you will not meet, you will not hear from me.”

It is not unusual for someone with a demanding schedule, like Aimard, who also is the artistic director of the Aldeburgh festival founded by the composer Benjamin Britten in the Suffolk, England, seaside town, to take time out, but he has more on his plate than most.

Aimard thinks a lot about programming, interpretation, the future of music, and the future of the performing tradition.

“I try to learn something every day and if I don’t I feel very unhappy,” he said.

He spent, by his own reckoning, 15 years working with Ligeti, in effect as a collaborator, on the set of piano etudes, a piano concerto and other piano works that increasingly are recognized as among the great works for the instrument from the latter half of the 20th century.


Since Ligeti’s death in 2006, Aimard is the repository of the playing and performance tradition of those works.

“What was important was for the interpreter to be the witness for the creator, so there will be a memory, otherwise when we forget, that’s bad.”

He hopes that one way or another the tradition can rub off on the younger generation of pianists, who as they come out of conservatories are technical wizards, who have no trouble tackling the toughest that Ligeti, or any other composer, has to offer, but perhaps, Aimard said, lack artistic depth.

“I think that a lot of people think that the technical level of young piano players is often very high but a lot of people are not sure that the artistic level is as high as one would wish,” he said.

“The question is to know what society wishes to have: I think that society needs to have people with ability but we need especially good cultural education, that is the priority for our society.”

(This story has been refiled to change book number from second to first in 5th paragraph)

Editing by Patricia Reaney and Elaine Lies

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