Revelatory Explorations of the Piano Music of Pierre Boulez

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Exquisite Labyrinth: The Music of Pierre Boulez (3): Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tamara Stefanovich (pianos). Queen Elizabeth Hall,London, 2.10.2011 (MB)

Piano Sonata no.1
Piano Sonata no.2
Piano Sonata no.3
une page d’éphéméride
Structures: Book II

A ‘marathon’ indeed, as Pierre-Laurent Aimard put it, though what a marathon, and what a sense of achievement even for us listeners, let alone the performers! Boulez’s ‘complete’ piano music: well, not quite, since, even leaving aside the withdrawn movements of the Third Sonata, we also missed the first book of Structures (admittedly also withdrawn). I should love to hear it in performance: for all the brickbats, it is a high-water mark of post-war serialism and thus a true musico-historical monument. As I once heard Boulez explain, there was very much a feeling at the time that composers such as he, Berio, and Stockhausen, must go through a kind of purgatory, in which even the music of such extraordinary personalities would sound somewhat similar (I am not so sure that it ever did, but never mind…), in order that greater freedom could be achieved on the other side. Would it not have been a thing of wonder to find oneself burned in that purging fire, just once, even if, as Aimard put it, it is not exactly nice music for a Sunday afternoon? Anyway, enough of such rank ingratitude: we heard three concerts throughout that afternoon, in which everything else was present and correct.

Aimard’s contribution was pretty much peerless: what a joy it was to welcome him back to form, in music about which he so clearly, deeply cares. (His spoken introductions to each piece showed great understanding and verbal communication too.) I have certainly never heard the Notations better performed; indeed, I am not sure I have heard them so well performed. Sharply characterised individually, they were also welded in performance as well as in twelve-note organisation into a thoroughly convincing whole. The young composer’s delight in the piano was communicated as brilliantly as his evident delight in the music of Debussy, Bartók, and, perhaps more surprisingly, Schoenberg, especially the Schoenberg of the Op.11 pieces. We were, of course, dazzled by the éclat, which was nevertheless so much more than that, by the staggering mechanisation of the tenth piece, but were equally mesmerised – I am sorry to be using that word again, yet it seems unavoidable in discussion of such music – by the stillness of the ninth, a foretaste in miniature, so it seemed, of the slow movement of the Second Sonata, its air as rare and bracing as that of a mountain lake. Aimard was equally persuasive in his expressively analytical account of the First Sonata. The dialectical games – his own description, so utterly fitting to this music and this mind – between the different types of material both scintillated and beguiled, sometimes both at once. (This is a dialectic, after all!)  Even had the pianist not taken such care to explain that productive conflict in words, his musical characterisation would have rendered it vivid to any listener with ears to hear. Freer material – ‘freedom’ is always controlled in Boulez, even in ‘aleatory’ form, let alone here – came properly into conflict with that toccata-like strand in the composer’s piano writing we should hear further unleashed in Incises. Moreover, Schoenberg, I was tempted to say, remained, reports of his death having been grossly exaggerated.

To conclude the first concert, Tamara Stefanovich – still introduced by Aimard – took to the stage for the Second Sonata. One can only admire any pianist able to give an account of this truly titanic work. However, Stefanovich, at least at times, suffered from comparison either with Aimard in the earlier works or with memories of Maurizio Pollini earlier this year in London. Yes, the comparisons are even more than usually odious, yet they were equally unavoidable. I was intrigued to start with by the contrast in touch, Aimard’s echt-modernist Bauhaus gleam followed by hints, and sometimes more than hints, of a heavier, almost old-style ‘Russian’ style. Boulez’s music should by now be perfectly capable of surviving, indeed thriving upon, different interpretative and stylistic strategies. (He himself has shown as conductor what light might be shown upon other composers’ works when a non-traditional æsthetic stance is applied to them. Strauss and Janáček are recent examples that spring to mind.) Yet Boulez as Tchaikovsky became a little wearing, not so much on account of the style itself as the lack of chiaroscuro. There was much that was admirable: for instance, the sense of suspense, hesitancy, as to where the musical dialectic might lead at the opening of the fourth movement, prior to polyphonic disintegration. That betokened true musical understanding. And yet, the whole was not quite more than the sum of its corrosive, Adornian-Mephistophelian parts.

Aimard returned at the beginning of the second concert, to perform the Third Sonata. It remains a formidably difficult to work to come to terms with, not least on account of its incompletion. (Even if one might think differently were one not to know, one cannot, – or I cannot – quite erase that knowledge.) This was perhaps a harder-edged performance than that of the First, or indeed the Notations. There was, however, no gainsaying the musical and again dramatic command, as the work’s – and performance’s – twists and turns were navigated. Stefanovich impressed in the opening of Incises, the parallels with Ravel (Gaspard especially) apparent but sadly, there was a sense of skating upon the surface during much of the toccata material. The 2005 une page d’éphémeride, whose Austrian premiere I heard in 2009, remained as full of promise: where will this latest piano project lead? What we have so far sounded suggestively Debussyan here.

Finally came the second book of Structures. Here it seemed to me that Stefanovich was on far better form. Perhaps the extraordinary drama of the work, in which decisions must be signalled by one player to another and then responded to (or not), appealed more to her strengths; perhaps playing with Aimard summoned her to greater heights. Whatever the explanation, this was an unforgettable performance, on a knife-edge – those dialectical games again – but expressive in a way that the trivial Boulez detractors will never understand, since they never actually seem to have the courage to listen to the music, let alone to think about it. The music does not so much move beyond ‘Darmstadt’ serialism as incorporate it and yet show us something new. That ever-expanding universe of serial possibilities is musically and even visually dramatised here, arguably more so than in much of Stockhausen. As for the rumbling, volcano-like ‘cadenza’ with which Stefanovich brought us to the close, that was a tour de force of neo-Lisztian pianism – Funérailles? – to which Aimard could respond with a tentative yet sure Mozartian seduction that pointed the way to the evening’s Pli selon pli.

Mark Berry