BOULEZ: Complete Music for Solo Piano – Marc Ponthus, p. – Bridge (2 discs)

Often neglected music by a controversial and sometimes inconsistent composer…but not here!

BOULEZ: Complete Music for Solo Piano – Marc Ponthus, piano – Bridge 9456 A/B (2 CDs), TT: 80:35 ****:

So let’s list them: Three Sonatas, 12 Notations, Incises, Une page d’ephemeride—that’s it. One would think that someone like Boulez would have completed many more piano works during the course of his long and semi-productive life, but his penchant for ongoing, incomplete, and constantly revised pieces would seem to work against it. Add to that the Leonard Bernstein problem—the attraction, demands, and difficulties of balancing a conducting career with the composing instinct–and I guess it’s not too hard to see why the output is somewhat limited.

However, small though it is, it is also very important. Most of the music is very early, the enfant terrible at work coming to terms with the Second Viennese School, and then advancing their initial efforts into something bordering on the radical. The first effort, 12 Notations, constitute the first real encounters with Berg-Webern-Schoenberg triumph, and the results are an elegant and naïve attempt to internalize the essence of these composers. Boulez dismissed them for years, then returned later to orchestrate several of them, recognizing that more was there than he first thought, considering them a “parody” of 12-tone technique. Each of the 12 movements is 12 bars in length, each starting (with one exception), with the overall pitch matching its place in the cycle, showing Boulez’s early obsession with order in extremis.

It was Schoenberg’s Op. 11 and 23 piano pieces that blazed the trial for the Three Sonatas. But while the Webernesque feeling of the First finds the “controlled delirium” that Boulez speaks of only in the Second, easily the most tormented and difficult of the three, there are hints even in the initial effort of the chaos to come.

Indeterminacy, created in part by the emergence of Cage and Stockhausen in the 1950s, found its way into the complete/incomplete Third Sonata of 1955-57 (the First having been started in 1946). Of the five original movements, which Boulez himself performed, only the second and third were published, and that remains the case today. This work, an attempt at reconciling multiplicity of choice with the astringent demands of Serialism, is tantalizingly—and frustratingly—in torso, perhaps defeating the very premise of the effort.

Incises is a short, competition work (versioned here in 2001) that Boulez created in 1994, and then tripled the length. It morphed into sur Incises for three pianos, harps, and percussionists lasting about 40 minutes. Each version is interesting on its own, surely one of the busiest Boulez compositions out there. A Page of Ephermeris is a piece created for a volume of compositions for students, the supposed basis for a new keyboard cycle that has not, as yet, appeared.

I will always love the Charles Rosen accounts of the sonatas, one of the most radiant and clarified accounts ever produced—not currently available. There are many good accounts out there of the sonatas, but this one of Marc Ponthus is easily one of the best, crisp, energetic, and enlivening in all respects. And it is rather silly to get only the sonatas without the rest of the pieces, so Bridge here conveniently offers a two-disc set for the price of one, making this quite a bargain. The sound is crystalline and realistic, making for a wonderful presentation of this important and often beautiful music.

—Steven Ritter

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