Pierre BOULEZ (b. 1925)
Douze Notations (1945) [9:37]
Première Sonate (1946) [8:29]
Deuxième Sonate (1948) [28:04]
Troisième Sonate (1955-57/1963) [16:59]
Incises (1994/2001) [10:57]
Une page d’éphéméride (2005) [4:26]
Mirjam Weisemann im Gespräch mit Pierre Boulez [45:18]
Mirjam Weisemann im Gespräch mit Dimitri Vassilakis [54:03]
Dimitri Vassilakis (piano)
rec. 2-4 December 2010 and 30-31 March 2011, Deutschland Kammermusiksaal, Köln (music), 31 January 2011, Büro von Pierre Boulez, IRCAM, Paris (Boulez interview) and 17 May 2011 (Vassilikis interview).
CYBELE RECORDS KiG004 [3 CDs: 63:11 + 60:43 + 54:03]
This is the fourth in Cybele’s excellent series of ‘Artists in Conversation’, and with such an education to be found in releases covering the string quartets of Hans Erich Apostel and Karl Amadeus Hartmann, there should be no real hindrance in pursuing the remarkable world of Pierre Boulez’s piano works.
Boulez has always been a catalyst for controversy, and this kind of superbly illustrated and authentically informed release should at the very least remove misunderstanding and enhance awareness of a complex musical voice. Perceptions of Boules as a hermetic figure, elitist and impenetrable, are set in context and opened out in this release. Impatience with ignorance is however a feature of Boulez’s character. His statement, “people are lazy”, referring to those challenged by and rejecting of contemporary music, is also an acknowledgement and expectation that a certain amount of effort should be put into understanding such music and taking ownership of it as a valid language of expression. Such points of view are arguable, but at least in this case, uncompromisingly clear.
So yes, we have to make an effort with Boulez’s piano music. Spiky atonality, extremes of dynamic and range, and an intensity of content and structure all coalesce to create music which requires edge of the seat concentration and an openness in accepting abstraction as a powerful means of generating sonic shape and structure. If this was painting, then it might occur to one as comparable with Wassily Kandinsky or Jackson Pollack. Jabbing edges, textures seeming to splatter from the keyboard - it takes a while to focus on elements which might be recognisable, or which can be related to something more familiar. TheDeuxième Sonate is as good a place to start as any, with hints of Webern and, dare I say it, fleeting sonorities which if slowed down, could have come from the pen of Messiaen. Structural study and analysis can provide its own rewards in this music, and the booklet notes guide us towards ways of thinking about these pieces which make them less overwhelmingly difficult.
What we can be assured of is that the performances on this release are of the highest calibre. Just look at the first page of the Première Sonate and you can see Dimitri Vassilakis’s mind and fingers recreating Boulez’s traces, and a world of remarkable beauty unfolds. This is work which requires detailed focus and considerable effort, but which rewards understanding with unparalleled gifts - still new, and still challenging our preconceptions about what music can and should do well over half a century on.
Comparing the Deuxième Sonate with Maurizio Pollini´s renowned recording on Deutsche Grammophon 447 431-2, Dimitri Vassilakis is no less dramatic and effective, though the DG recording is closer and more immediate, and more physically impressive on first impression. Pollini’s reading is exploratory and analytical as well as superbly controlled and effective, and it’s hard to rate one artist as preferable in absolute terms, though I could make a case for Vassilakis as having a more organic or ‘musical’ feel - which isn’t much of a help, but at least provides a little evidence of his being highly competitive with legendary performances from the past. Vassilakis is a specialist in the toughest of contemporary music repertoire, has worked extensively with Ensemble InterContemporain and Boulez himself, having given the première of his Incises. Remarkably well prepared performances are here given the best of SACD recordings, and every subtlety has been captured. Boulez is a ‘purist’ in the sense that he hasn’t gone in for special effects with the piano. With no John Cage ‘prepared piano’ material, the recording can be made at a respectful distance, and while we miss nothing there is certainly no fatiguing sensation of having your head stuck under the lid of the piano.
Boulez hasn’t softened a great deal in latter years, and the later works on disc 2 are almost as demanding as those on CD 1. Incises was written for a piano competition and is full of speedy and spectacular virtuosity. Une page d’éphéméride was written for Universal Edition’s ‘Piano Project’, whose aim was to widen young pianist’s curiosity about contemporary music for the piano. These would also have to be virtuoso young pianists, but there is plenty of fascinating sonority to explore and digest in this fairly short work.
The conversation with Boulez is done in German, and is crammed with interesting information, ranging from personal background and histories to collaborations and attitudes to sound and wide-ranging semantics of interpretation - Varèse’s sirens, and the sirens of the streets of New York - the discipline of serial music in comparison with to chance approach of Cage. Disc 3 is an interview with Dimitri Vassilakis, also in German, ranging from early beginnings and his career as a pianist, working with Boulez, performing and looking into the future of contemporary music.
This is a satisfyingly chunky release as ever from the quality-aware Cybele label, and as with the other releases in this series is an education in its own right. Boulez is a significant composer and musician, and only the next 50 or 100 years will give enough perspective on his music to show whether his work led into a fascinating cul-de-sac or created a lasting and influential legacy. Recordings with as much power and conviction as these go a long way towards reinforcing the latter, and with few enough appearances of these works this release can justifiably be seen as the new standard reference for Boulez’s output for solo piano.
Dominy Clements
Educational and striking - a new standard reference for these works.