“. . .avec un frisson” = BOULEZ: Une page d’éphéméride; DEBUSSY: Études, Book II; BOULEZ: Incises – Yegor Shevtsov, piano – New Focus Recordings FCR132, 42:54 (8/27/13) ***1/2:
I think it’s safe to say that the music of Pierre Boulez is not a regular audience favorite around the globe. And his bullying insistence that serial music is the only way for the fully engaged modern composer not only failed to make him friends and influence people but has proved to be dead wrong, at least if the vast number of serious composers who have turned to tonal music is any indication. That said, Boulez has made a significant contribution to music in the twentieth century, plus his willingness to approach serialism in a flexible and imaginative way has helped to keep him a more relevant musical figure than others of his Darmstadt colleagues. And then there’s his conducting, through which Boulez has reached many more appreciative listeners than through his original music.
But that’s another story. On the disc under review, we have two very recent works for piano, a medium that was much more central at the start of Boulez’s composing career. Une page d’éphéméride (2005) and Incises (2001) both illustrate Boulez’s willingness to experiment with the experimental. According to Brice Tissier, like many of Boulez’s compositions from the ‘70s on, Incises went through a number of compositional permutations, being reworked in versions for three pianos and then for harps and percussion instruments following its premiere in 1994. Tissier discusses the dual nature of the solo-piano version, in which there are a number of oppositions: “lent/prestissimo, flexible/fixed tempo, smooth/striated time, measured/non-measured rhythms, homogenous/contrasting dynamics. . . .” This makes for a volatile, even explosive composition, as the various contrasts appear unannounced. It must be a sore test for the stamina of the pianist, though unlike some of Boulez, it’s not a test for the listener, who ends up mesmerized, wondering what Boulez will pull out of the hat next.
The shorter Une page d’éphéméride (at five minutes’ duration about half as long as Incises) is more of the same—fast/slow and different pianistic “textures” alternating. Again, there’s a lot of scampering up and down the keyboard between moments of near stasis. Pianist Yegor Shevtsov quotes Boulez’s comment in which the composer draws a comparison between his music and fish in an aquarium: “[the fish] hover motionless for a long time. . .then all of a sudden they take fright at something and flit like an arrow.” Very apt.
And as Shevtsov adds, the description is appropriate as well for Debussy’s Études, which are equally volatile, flighty music. These pieces have never been as popular as the composer’s earlier Préludes. First of all, there’s that pedagogical bent, and then Debussy keeps their content purely abstract, spelling out what aspects of pianism they address: repeated notes, arpeggios, the half-step. Book II of Études is full of skittish, toccata-like music, though as in the Boulez pieces there are contrasts, such as the florid, gently flowing Pour les agréments, “which focuses on pianistic ornamentation,” and the watery music at the start and close of Pour les arpèges composés. The juxtaposition of Debussy’s Études and the Boulez works is clever, thoroughly engaging.
Other than engagement, however, my chief reaction is to wonder why Shevtsov doesn’t include the first book of Études; there’s certainly room on the disc. My guess is the pianist felt that inclusion might dilute the comparison he’s drawing between the works of the two composers. But it would have provided better value, as well as offered viable competition to available recordings of the Études. Still, if you’re intrigued by the concept behind Shevtsov’s program, be advised that it’s powerfully conveyed by the pianist and captured in an equally powerful sound recording.