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Discovery Records
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Tel: +44 (0)1380 728000
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Pierre BOULEZ (b.1925)
Piano Sonata No.1 (1946)
Le Marteau sans Maître (1953-55)
Marc Ponthus (piano)
Linda Hirst (mezzo)
Lontano/Odaline de la Martinez
Recorded at St. Silas Church, London (sonata), and Rosslyn Hill Chapel, London (no dates given, c.1995) DDD
LORELT LNT108 [46’55]

Even with such an ungenerous playing time, this disc, which was very well received on its initial release in the mid-nineties, represents a formidable achievement. It was commented on back then that there was a real dearth of good recordings of the main work, Le Marteau sans Maître (The Masterless Hammer), so such a meticulously prepared, superbly recorded account as this, from Lontano, was very much to be welcomed. Everything said then still holds true: this is as good an account of Boulez’s groundbreaking work as you are likely to encounter, even from the great man himself.

The piece has a quite novel ensemble consisting of mezzo-soprano (or contralto), alto flute, viola, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba (a kind of xylophone) and un-pitched percussion. The overall effect is very much of African (or Balinese) sonorities meeting the rigorous intellect of central Europe. There are nine interlocking movements, four of which feature the surreal poems of René Char, though Boulez does not set these in a conventional fashion. Rather he treats the voice as part of the whole group, with the vocal lines emerging eerily from the sometimes delicate, sometimes brittle textures. In this respect the piece comes across as a direct descendant of Pierrot Lunaire, and it is no coincidence that Boulez has often programmed them together. He also goes as far as direct quotation in the third movement, ‘l’artisanat furieux’, where the subtle counterpoint of voice and solo flute is an intentional (and acknowledged) reference to the seventh of Schoenberg’s cycle, ‘Der Kranke Mond’. The intensely complex rhythms and difficult internal balances are superbly overcome by Martinez and her players, who actually manage the near impossible task of making this music sound natural, unforced and even eloquent. The sheer exoticism of the sound world tickles the ear, and the massive, arresting tones of the tam-tam and gong that ceremonially close the work are captured in demonstration quality sound.

Complexity is also the order of the day with the youthfully aggressive, tersely percussive Piano Sonata No.1. Marc Ponthus has all the technique necessary to bring this difficult music off the page, and he is not afraid to temper some of Boulez’s more extreme markings to try and bring an element of warmth to the proceedings. In fact I have rarely heard the extremes of the piece carried off more persuasively, the harsh toccata-like sections balanced out by the delicate poetry of the quieter passages. There is a budget alternative here from Idil Biret on Naxos (coupled logically with Sonatas 2 and 3), but it makes for possibly more satisfying listening to have the piano work balanced out with the ensemble piece.

The liner notes (in minuscule print) are adequate, and the disc’s short measure is this time offset by the budget price. Worth investigating

Tony Haywood


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