Polyphonic spree

Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard penetrates the world of Bach.

French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard may be 52, but he’s got an old-school Gallic charm that can make him totally disarming to a woman half his age. (Ladies, you know what I’m talking about.) Cocoa-brown eyes and Serge Gainsbourg smirk aside, Aimard is a persuasive pianist who’s lately turned toward the Bach side, notably in a superb 2008 recording of The Art of Fugue. For this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival, he curates and performs in “Bach & Polyphonies,” juxtaposing Johann Sebastian with Georgian choral music and newer pieces by Ligeti and Elliott Carter. We chatted up Aimard about his whirlwind musical offering.

You’re widely regarded as a champion of modern composers. What attracted you to Bach?
You have a phenomenal quantity of music written by him, and as a keyboard player you have also an immense, exceptional repertory that he delivered. Still, I never played [Bach] in public, I think, until I was 50 years old. I always thought that one time I should try and do it...because otherwise if I had waited 30 more years, [Laughs] the chance would have been reduced.

What inspired “Bach & Polyphonies”?
[Mostly Mozart executive director] Jane Moss proposed to me to make a Bach festival some years ago, and I told her I’d need years and years, maybe a decade, for that. But then, well, it happened earlier than expected. I thought that the subject [of] Bach would be a way of penetrating this universe, the world of polyphony, and would help to discover or rediscover other very rich polyphonies, like Georgian polyphony or some contemporary pieces.

You have a lineup of performers as diverse as the music, notably Georgia’s Ensemble Basiani in its North American debut.
I’ve always heard about Georgian polyphony. I brought some recordings [back] from, I think, my first tour to Russia. So this was back to the ’70s. All this was a phenomenal discovery, and then I thought one day, I want to hear them live. But I missed the opportunity several times.... There is a richness in polyphony and originality, and an intensity in [its] spiritual message. And also [it’s] such a cultural phenomenon, this music that unifies the whole country and that is in the center of the culture, of the population. So this is really an enormous, enormous experience to have to hear them.

You’re working again with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe after a successful run with them at last year’s Mostly Mozart.
Well, this is a very unique orchestra, you know? They decided 30 years ago to found an orchestra...and the best possible musicians joined for this project, and worked on great pieces with great conductors or musicians. They are people from an incredibly fine culture, and a very incredibly refined orchestra musically. I got the chance to be closely associated with them from 2000; I feel it’s very significant that we are associated again.

And a considerable relationship builds up over ten years.
There is a confidence, so one can really trust each other and, well, go ahead for this kind of project, simply speaking. I’m very thankful to Jane Moss that she trusts me for this kind of project, as well. I find these are really exciting moments in an artistic life: It’s good to have intense discoveries, but it’s important also to have variety and fun. For instance, if one sees the name of Bach all the time (or almost all the time), it will be always very different pieces. Because one night it will be choir, a cappella pieces. Another night it will be for much more secular and brilliant music, like Brandenburg Concertos. Another night it will be transcriptions of Art of Fugue.

For Art of Fugue, you’re playing for the first time with the International Contemporary Ensemble.
I’m delighted about that. I’ve made a lot of new music; I’ve been myself a member of an orchestra. I’m kind of expecting to discover a new family.

With the variety of Bach pieces that you’ve programmed for this event, could you describe the composer in one word?
[Pauses] Universal.

“Bach & Polyphonies” runs at Lincoln Center Fri 13--Mon 16.

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