Pierre Boulez and the Piano = Douze Notations; Piano Sonatas (complete); Incises; Une page d’ephemeride; Interviews in German – Dimitri Vassilakis, p. – Cybele multichannel SACD KiG 004 (3 discs), 177:57 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
I miss the late Charles Rosen’s recording of the Three Sonatas. Would that they were re-released, and soon! Rosen had a unique authority in the music of Boulez, and I still feel that his record is the definitive reading of these seminal sonatas. Boulez of course wrote very little for the piano, all of it contained in about a 70 minute time period, but that does not diminish the importance of the material, as it traces the composer’s development from twelve-tone to serial to open form. The Twelve Notations take 12 pieces each in 12 measures done in 12 tone language, something Boulez was already a master of by 1945. The clarity and precision in the works is remarkable, even putting Anton Webern to shame in the way that each note is elevated to a status of ultimate importance.
Following this the very next year is the Sonata No. 1, a work hell-bent on examining contrasts and dichotomies of an expanded and ultimately dissolved sonata form, until the form itself resembles chaos, though never succumbing to meaninglessness—Boulez always allows a way for the listener to follow him. Sonata No. 2 was written almost as a tribute to the Beethovenian ideal of sonata form. Motives and themes are used, abandoned, and used again as the composer take extreme liberties with developmental processes, though continually referencing them in movements such as the scherzo, quoting the famous “B-A-C-H” theme, and even employing a fugal device for some 50 measures in the first movement. This is probably the most technically difficult piano music he ever wrote.
The Third Sonata, like so many of the composer’s other works, is a work in progress. Rosen recorded it without the movement “Sigle”, a version of Antiphonie that appeared in 1968, but its inclusion here makes the sonata as complete as possible. Boulez embraced “open form” in all its freedom and fury here, allowing the performer a great deal of freedom in terms of what order to play the movements in and a myriad of other choices as well, including playing one of the “formants” as he calls them, in retrograde.
Incises is my favorite piano piece by Boulez, as it is possibly the closest he ever came to incorporating a Lisztian-style showmanship into his music. This work is gangbusters from the word go, a technical tour-de-force of considerable finesse and easy-to-follow musical logic. It is followed by a short piece he wrote as a compulsory piano contest work to demonstrate to the musicians the glories of modern music, Une page d’ephemeride, not really significant in the overall scheme of things, but a nice, refined, and almost impressionistic piece designed for young players.
Dimitri Vassilakis has the full measure of these scores, partly supervised in preparation by the composer himself, and his technical wizardry and understanding of these works is first-rate, even if Rosen’s ghost lingers and Pollini’s fury still sears the memory. The sound is bright and clear, nicely spread among all the speakers. This sells for about $25, not out of range for an SACD but still a little high. Most of the second and third discs are dedicated to an interview with the composer which I am sure is fascinating—this is part and parcel of this series called “Artists in Conversation”—but as it is in German it will serve little value to most English listeners. All of the music could have been included on one disc at a lower price, so perhaps the folks at Cybele could be a little more understanding of the nature of different international markets in the future.