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You were becoming known for contemporary music by the age of 16. What led you towards the music of the late-20th century so early in your career?
My first piano teacher was in fact a flute player who was interested in many things. She composed music for experimental theatre, and she had been a part of an orchestra of young musicians in summer classes for new music, like in Basel in Switzerland with Pierre Boulez. She gave me a musical education that started with Renaissance music, well not in terms of what I would play but in terms of what I would listen to, up until the most recent music and including world music like the music of Bali. She brought me scores of Stockhausen or Boulez, so it was a large-minded education.
So when did you first encounter Messiaen's music?
We had a series of concerts of new music in Lyon that was excellent. The person who organised that was a chemist, but he was also an amateur pianist and loved new music – he was sight-singing Boulez's Second Sonata all the time! He ended his life with not much money, because he gave it all for this series of new music. We could hear the best of avant-garde in Europe at the time. So I persuaded my dad who was, well I would say more conservative than me at this moment, but who was a great dad, to come with me to these concerts in order to discover all these things. And certainly I reacted very positively to this music, because I know Geneviève Lièvre – that was my teacher’s name – had been teacher to 15 to 20 different young pianists and I was the only one who reacted so intensely to this music.
You were 12 when you went to study in Paris in 1969. What was the status of Messiaen as a composer?
He was already a legendary figure, of course. In fact I was extremely lucky because of petty politics. I was supposed to go to a piano teacher that I had no real enthusiasm for, and by chance Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen's wife, came to my final examination in Lyon where she was member of the jury and more or less kidnapped me. She proposed that I should be in her class and this was a miracle for me because she was a legendary figure as well, and I got the chance to know Messiaen.
So you met him through her as your teacher?
Absolutely. But because they didn't have children, and her relationship with her students could be very strong and pronounced, I soon got the chance to travel with them and I went to their country house. So this was a very personal relationship as well. I got to work on a lot of pieces with her and with him as well. This was really a privilege. His music of course was a very important part of her teaching, but also because I chose the Messiaen competition in 1973 as my first international competition. I've never been very fond of international competitions, but this seemed to me to make the inevitable torture a kind of fertile one. So this was also an occasion to concentrate more on his music. Later on when I was in Ensemble InterContemporain we played a lot of Messiaen and he would come all the time because he had a close relationship with Boulez. He would hear me and so I could ask him for critiques or suggestions or commentaries for several of his pieces.
How did you first come upon the Vingt Regards and when did you first decide this was a piece you were going to tackle?
Honestly speaking, when you have a chance at 12 years old to have such a close relationship with such a giant, you could reject him maybe, which was not my case, or you fall in complete love really in a religious sense. His music held a very strong fascination so it was almost the most natural thing to play Vingt Regards. So I was fascinated and incredibly strongly affected by this masterpiece. In some way, you know, Yvonne was a phenomenal interpreter of this music, but the feeling was that it was necessary that the next generation would then absorb the piece, so there would be other generations of witnesses. Because even if somebody has been the first interpreter, even if you admire this person and love this person, it is important to have slightly different points of view of a piece because of the generations, because of the sensibility, because of everybody's culture. Different points of view to reflect in an original way the complexity of the piece.
I'm not a pianist, but I see the enormous technical challenge of the work. I also see the enormous challenge of a piece of music where one has to find a spiritual way into it as well. How do you equate those two sides of the work?
I wouldn’t just talk about size. I would also speak about the timbral dimension, the dimension in modernity, the dimension in fertilising the instrument with other instrumental or musical dimensions, and the way Messiaen has created a new genre in music. Why is it called “Regards” and not “Sonata” or “Moment Musicaux”? And he has conceived from the start a cycle of two hours for a single instrument! As an interpreter you must try to bring a richness to your interpretation so the listeners will understand it not simply as an extraordinary emotional, or instrumental, or spiritual work. It is all that and more.
How important for you as an interpreter is the visual imagery that the pieces suggest?
Well, there are two kinds of them. One is the fresco dimension in the case of the religious scenes. The second is the colouristic one. The first one is what carries a more profound vision – a theological vision – to invite you to a deeper and more significant sense. The second one is more of a problem. As everyone knows Messiaen had synaesthesia, this marvellous disease where you see the colours of the harmonies that you hear. Most listeners or interpreters don’t have this strange lack of regulation of the optic nerve. Can we learn something from that? In my opinion, yes, because if we read the diagrams that show the correspondence in Messiaen's perception between the harmonies and the colours he has seen, then we can see that each object or each harmony has a different visual colour depending on the transposition, on the register and on the dispatching of the space of each harmony. What that means, in fact, is that what we might perceive as the same harmony will be different depending on the presentation of it in the space etc. Messiaen has perceived all these harmonic situations on an incredible, varied, and sensible way. So what seems to us to be very systematic, and sometimes even repetitive – some people even say “boring” in his music – was not perceived like that at all by Messiaen. It was a permanently renewed timbral experience and I think we can try to develop a kind of hyper-sensibility to this phenomenon as both interpreters and listeners.
Has spending a lot of time on this piece made a difference to what you believe, spiritually?
I don't think so. It seems to me that for such essential dimensions in life like belief or our relation to the world or cosmos, we should try every day to make a kind of tabula rasa with all our life experiments, all that we read, that we listen to and what we learn – especially in a relative world like ours where we don't consider there to be one dominant country or one truth. I think each of us should make his own alchemy and find his own way. And in this case, one piece couldn't be the absolute key for leading a life. This is what I believe. But I'm sure that some people may not agree.
I take it you play it straight through for the whole two hours?
I've tried both. Both are possible. To play without a break keeps this arch, but as an interpreter you have to think about the message of the work you are supposed to transmit to your listeners. Two hours of complete concentration for music that for a certain amount of people is quite new, quite unusual, is a lot. So I think that to have a break is not necessarily – well let's say – a sin.
David Robertson on one occasion mentioned to me having had a conversation with you about a fantasy of an orchestrated version of the Vingt Regards. Is that still a fantasy?
I adore David – he’s a great conductor, really and I'm extremely touched to be with him now in Australia for the first time on my own because he's the conductor with whom I have made the most varied repertoire. We've played all kinds of music from Salieri up until many new music composers. We've had a lot of conversations and maybe with a good glass of wine – he's a person who can appreciate a good glass of wine – then we are having many fantasies. If this one will lead to anything, I have no clue, but I know that the pleasure of making any piece with David will be great.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard performs Des Canyons aux étoiles with the Sydney Symphony March 8-12 and Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra March 18-21. He also performs Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus at City Recital Hall on March 14 and then at Melbourne Recital Centre on March 20
Related: From the Canyons to the Stars
David Robertson and Pierre-Laurent Aimard talk about Messiaen’s unique musical portrait of life, the universe and everything