By his own account, Pierre-Laurent Aimard is not a pianist, but a musician whose instrument happens to be the piano.
And by all accounts, he is not one of the world’s great conductors, although if you closed your eyes at this concert you’d have been forgiven for thinking otherwise.
This is because his performances of Beethoven’s first three Piano Concertos with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe brought out all that is great in this man, more generally seen as an interpreter of contemporary music. Of course, it helps to be working with arguably the continent’s finest chamber orchestra and for the entire group to be familiar with the pieces (witness their 2003 Teldec release of the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos, then conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and all recorded live).
Nevertheless, as Aimard assumed the role of both conductor and soloist, his piano sporting Perspex flaps to direct the sound to the audience as it faced the orchestra, there was an underlying coherence to the performances that derived from far more than simply knowing the pieces inside out.
In the opening to the Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op.19 (performed first as the first to be sketched), Aimard’s conducting was far from elegant visually, but it certainly delivered the goods. Why became clear as soon as he started playing. The orchestra had clearly built up such an affinity with him that keeping everything tight extended to ‘listening’ to him even when he wasn’t playing. Indeed, there was no discernible difference in the way that the orchestra responded to his hands, whether they were striking keys or being waved in the air.
If, however, the Second Concerto seemed ideally suited to the size and temper of the COE, the bolder Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op.15 felt as if it would have suited a larger orchestra better. The strings who played the militaristic opening to the Allegro con brio lacked a little in underlying strength, even though the music is marked ‘pianissimo’. Similarly, whilst Aimard’s playing in the Largo was exquisite, flowing freely whilst also giving every note the individual attention it deserved, it felt slightly under-supported by the orchestra. Nevertheless, the fact that the performance was not quite perfect only made it more interesting to hear, rather in the same way that an unfinished building is far more revealing of its design and structure.
In the wrong pair of hands, listening to Beethoven’s first three Piano Concertos on the trot could feel monotonous, but here I would have happily stayed to hear the Fourth and Fifth as well. This was an evening of highly illuminating playing, and as the group played the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op.37, the piece felt (almost) as revelatory as it must have done when it was first performed in 1803.