Michael Wendeberg’s Extraordinary Achievement in the Piano Music of Boulez

GermanyGermany  Berlin Festtage (4) – Boulez: Michael Wendeberg (piano). Schiller Theater, Berlin, 30.3.2015 (MB)

Sonatas nos 1-3
Une page d’éphéméride

This concert was, by any standards, an extraordinary achievement. Simply to play Boulez’s complete published piano solo œuvre in a single recital is worthy of praise; to do it so convincingly, with all the excitement of an all-Liszt recital from a great Lisztian is worthy of still greater praise. This may have been the first time I had heard Michael Wendeberg – although it is possible that I heard him during his time as a pianist for the Ensemble Intercontemporain – but I hope that it will not be the last.

First come the twelve Notations, played as the classics – if not quite ‘classic Boulez’ – they have become, although with all the freshness of discovery too. The first was caressed; the second, whilst furious, still benefited from Wendeberg’s beautiful tone. In general, this was very much a post-Second Viennese School sound. The fourth was taken at what seems a more appropriate speed than Daniel Barenboim had done the morning before, whilst Wendeberg’s leaning into phrases in the fifth had me thinking, not inappropriately, of Chopin. The mini-toccata of no.6, a proper moto perpetuo, contrasted with the post-Debussy Prélude quality of no.8. If the ninth did what it said on the tin – ‘Lointain – Calme’ – so equally did its successor, ‘Mécanique et très sec,’ without those markings substituting for interpretation. Throughout, musical process and pianism were as one.

The First Sonata then opened as if a continuation, an intensification (subtler, certainly), a deepening. In the first movement, Webern sounded all the more present – this is clearly a pianist who would make an excellent job of the Austrian composer’s piano music – in a performance possessed of a properly dynamic conception of form. The second movement offered sinuous serial process, not only as work but as performance. ‘Bergian’ would be an exaggeration, but perhaps some of the roots of Boulez’s later attraction for Berg’s music might be discerned here. And how the piano sang! This was a piano recital, not a completist duty.

Again, the first movement of the Second Sonata imparted a sense of continuation, deepening, and so on. This was infinitely surer, more well-shaped, than a performance I had heard just more than a week earlier at the Barbican. Wendeberg seduced, without loss of clarity and bite. Aspiration to – or should that be denial of? – Messiaenesque melody was integrated into a structure of disintegrating Beethovenian sonata form. Freedom and mechanism: a dialectic apparent between Notations here was present in, indeed propelled, the progress of a single movement. The close came both as confirmation and as surprise. Line was impressively present in the second movement, likewise pianistic eloquence. Outbursts and eruptions made their point, but in context, the radicalism of the final notes reinforced. The third movement was just as inexorable, just as characterful; so was the fourth. In the latter, colours were drawn just as they might be in Liszt, not least in the bass. An almost Bergian synthesis seemed within reach, although, quite rightly, it was never achieved. This extraordinary movement sounded as if a post-Debussyan piano fantasy, shaped by a drama that was very much of the other side of the Rhine. Boulez as we know and love him was indubitably here. If the final ‘Lent’ section could not reconcile, it spoke, even sang, as if the witness following some unspeakable catastrophe: the song of aftershock.

Wendeberg’s Third Sonata, following the interval, again offered a voice that was the same, yet different. Harmonies were sometimes familiar, yet the context was different. Form and structure are of course here entirely different – and would be different again in another performance. (This is in no sense meant as an adverse criticism, but it is a pity we could not hear another reading, immediately afterwards, or even at the end.) There was, in any case, a genuine sense of openness, which would surely have been discerned by those knowing nothing of Boulez’s post-Mallarmé formal conception. Yet even that openness faced dialectical assault, from what we might call a tendency towards post-pontillism. The early 1950s were, after all, not so very distant when Boulez began work on this sonata. All the while, the warm crystallisation of work and performance alike were dramatically apparent. ‘Trope’ seemed somehow more ‘completed’, or at least it did to begin with. Later, the music once again seemed to open up: dialectics aplenty, then, but dialectics with undeniable sonorous allure, even charm.

Incises seemed haunted by the ghost of Ravel: Scarbo? It was less haunted by, then bathed in, the refinement of later Boulez. There was a clear toccata-like quality as much in performance as in the work itself. Subtle, anything but pedantic, Wendeberg offered a wealth of dynamic gradations, which again would have graced a ‘Romantic’ piano recital, not least with respect to repeated notes. The work, then, emerged more strongly than ever as a reconciliation with, but not reversion to, pianistic and more broadly musical ‘tradition’. This was certainly the most accomplished performance I have heard. Likewise a mordant yet affectionate ‘programmed encore’ of Une page d’éphéméride: both (temporary) summation and tantalising hint at a new path. A ‘true’ and truly generous encore, the Sarabande from the E minor Partita, suggested that we need to hear Wendeberg in Bach too.

Just in case, you were not feeling envious (enough), Michael Wendeberg conducts too…

Mark Berry

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