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11/20/2012 10:36 am ET | Updated Jan 19, 2013

You Can't Paint Romantic Music With an Impressionist's Palette

French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed at Carnegie Hall last Thursday evening, presenting a program spanning impressionistic, romantic and modern periods.

The recital started with French impressionist Claude Debussy's second book of Preludes, a set of 12 pieces, much like a gallery with a dozen paintings. As the studious looking Aimard started playing, the hall was immediately filled with shadowy sound, a sound that pervaded the hall like a fragrant fog. Blue-grey cool tones, soft and nuanced, took us to a world of blurred lines and misty impressions. What he lacked in contrast, he made up for in subtle shades of color and shadows. Most pianists strive to infuse these pieces with some character and give it a kind of arch as a set of 12 pieces, but Aimard restrained himself from playing up differences; all 12 seemed to be an exercise in grey. The detached and austere style of his playing was fascinating to hear, although if the preludes were paintings, his would not be the wondrous kind that swallows you up in its world, but rather the beautiful, flawless kind you admire from a distance.

After the intermission, Aimard picked up on a similar tone, playing contemporary Swiss composer Heinz Holliger's Elis (Three Night Pieces.) This was, if anything, an even sparser affair than the Debussy preludes, but the pianist's approach worked well with the themes of darkness, decay and death Holliger portrays.

It therefore came as a surprise that Aimard plunged into Schumann's Symphonic Etudes with barely a pause - Schumann may be a lot of things, but it is certainly not cold or austere. Yes, the theme, a simple set of chords in C sharp minor, is dark and lonely, yet there is a world of difference between darkness in the Black Square by Kasimir Malevich sense and darkness in the Byronesque romantic sense.

The variations picked up slowly, the first of them still as soft and dreamy as the theme had been. Schumann's music is characterized by polar opposites - the composer even gave his two personalities names; the passionate and manic Florestan and the dreamy introvert Eusebius. Aimard's Schumann seemed to be all-Eusebius; instead of a Schumann swept away by illogical passions and outpourings of desire, it was a soft, ponderous, cerebral and slightly impotent romantic that the pianist brought to life. Indeed, in the 6th variation, one of the most agitated ones in the first half of the suite, Aimard, who had seemed so comfortable producing all different shadowy shades of tone in Debussy, seemed incapable of getting a resounding sound from the piano. Not that he didn't want to, I assume - he grunted audibly during the 6th variation - but my rule of thumb about pianists and conductors raising their voices while they play or conduct is that if they could really get the sound they want from the piano (or orchestra) they wouldn't need to grunt. It's impotent frustration that makes them grunt; dissatisfaction finding another outlet.

At best, some of the variations were poetic, soft and beautiful, but Schumann without passion is just a beautiful picture on a wall - a nice painting you can look at - or not. Even the joyous and impetuous final variation had a ponderous quality about it, and to the very end, he tried, but could not get, a satisfactory fortissimo from the instrument. In the world's best concert hall, playing an excellent Steinway, this should not have been a problem, but it was. Usually pianists have the opposite problem - there are no lack of strenuous men and women to bang away at the piano - it's more difficult to get a crystal clear whisper that can be heard exquisitely to the last row.

I still think Aimard is an excellent pianist - a mature and sensitive one - but I hope that next time he will bring us music more suited to his intellectual temperament.

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