Olivier Messiaen's Preludes for piano must stand with the prodigal wonders of Mendelssohn and Mozart. The 19-year-old Messiaen circumnavigated a new musical world in these 10 works which have the dimension and atmosphere of a symphony from the cosmos.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who studied with the composer's wife and won prizes named for the composer, played the set Friday at the Perelman Theater, challenging the hall to reverberate in entirely unique ways.
Aimard has lived with demanding contemporary music since birth, seemingly, and his loving approach to these works was expressed in playing that built on unique resonances, nuance, and an Olympian overview that clarified complexity.
Complexity. Messiaen wrote with his synesthesia in mind, notes and intervals suggesting colors. No listener shares exactly the composer's color wheel, but the music has such extraordinary shadings, starbursts of light, canons, bells, and song that the pianist acts as translator, discoverer and prophet. Aimard gave new meaning to canon, to the imprint of a tonality, to the vision contained in a slightly altered scale. And everywhere, single notes, clusters, flashing runs emerged in sounds that seemed newly minted. Could this be the traditional instrument with hammers and strings?
Each piece portrayed a poetic feeling, and although they are not arranged in an obvious theatrical order, they create a long arc of imagist logic. Aimard's fluency reinforced that subtle logic. The beauty of sound always suggested subtly the next dreamlike goal. It was an affirmation of all that produced the long, taut silence that followed the last note, as if the playing created an end to time.
Aimard added two works designed to show other French composers turning away from convention. Ravel's Miroirs, some 20 years before the Preludes, stressed color and atmosphere, too. Aimard's playing shimmered and made full use of the abrupt silences that give phrases such thrust. In the movement "Alborada del gracioso," he infused the Spanish gestures with suggestions and echoes, and in the final "Le Vallee des cloches," he freed a vast range of bell sounds and hints.
Closing with Chopin's Barcarolle in F sharp, his playing found subtlety and power as he reminded listeners that Chopin, too, was shaking off a tradition in the search for poetic truth.