Channelling Messiaen: Pierre-Laurent Aimard talks to Classical CD Choice

Pierre-Laurent Aimard on his new recording for PENTATAONE of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux. Classical CD Choice spoke to the much-acclaimed French pianist about his illustrious teacher

Your new recording of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux is one that surely would have pleased the composer. You studied with him; did you feel his presence metaphorically at your side as you recorded the piece for PENTATONE? 

Well, you might say that I felt Messiaen’s presence – in a spiritual sense at least. Certainly, when I was playing this piece, I was conscious of how the composer not only created a new language of music, but also of how he instilled in the listener an immersion into a new meditative state – the experience of a composition by Messiaen should possess a variety of extra-musical elements which a pianist such as myself must try to realise. In many ways, it’s the perfect music for our own over-busy, invasive world in which sound can be a source of distraction rather than beauty or transcendence.

How important is your shared nationality with the composer? Is there any reason why a French pianist such as yourself might find it easier to enter the Francophone world of Messiaen?

Shared nationality? Not important at all! I consider myself more European than French in any case, and all great music must have a universality which means that performers from all countries could do justice to it. In the case of Messiaen, just look at how many musicians from your own country are superb interpreters of the composer — Jennifer Bate in his organ music, for instance.

Which is more important in this piece: peerless technique or entering on an emotional level the world of the composer’s mystical relationship with nature?

I think I can answer that by saying that the technique is a vessel through which the music must pass. Of course, you have to have the technique under your belt, but a piece like Catalogue d’Oiseaux must never simply become a showcase for the pianist. And as for that relationship with nature, I was reminded how crucial that was by giving a performance recently in a hide for birdwatchers – in fact, the audience was half birdwatchers and half music lovers, and I noticed that the birdwatchers had the patience and perceptiveness required to respond to music that most of them would not have heard before. I found it a very enlightening experience!

Catalogue d’Oiseaux is demanding on both the performer and to some degree the listener (though immensely rewarding). How much would you recommend the domestic listener consumes at a sitting – more than one disc? 

That’s up to each individual listener, but I suppose someone new to the piece must approach it with care and patience — hopefully they will find it rewarding enough to develop their capacity to experience exactly what Messiaen was attempting to convey.

The PENTATONE company has a particularly analytical surround sound recording technique in which every pianistic nuance is registered. Does this place more demands on you as a performer?

Frankly, I’m very grateful that I have recorded this music at this particular time in my life, when recording techniques such as those practised by PENTATONE are so advanced, and can do full justice to the entire range of the piano sound. Just listen, for instance, to the timbre of the piano that the engineers have accorded the music. I like to think that Messiaen would have been very pleased by this recording; the reproduction of piano sound has moved on considerably since his day.