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Jean BARRAQUÉ (1928-1973)
Sonate pour piano (1950-52) [47:57]
Roger Woodward (piano)
rec. 27-29 October 1972, Abbey Road Studios, London

As the press release for this recording states, “other recordings have been made of this iconic twentieth century serial work”. Indeed, if you look, these include one on ECM performed by Herbert Henck, one from Telos which appears to be unavailable, played by Pi-Hien Chen. On CPO there's a performance by Stefan Litwin which is a good seven minutes longer than Woodward’s. I had a listen to this in advance of writing this review in order to acclimatise myself, but with a little note in my back pocket from another review which complained of its painful slowness. The score indicates that a performance should take about 40 minutes, but there are no metronome markings, and pianists today are left to themselves to decide how très or moins their vif should be. Jean-Frédéric Neuburger manages to come in well under 40 minutes, at 38:14 on Mirare, so perceptions of fast and slow remain determinedly relative and as widely varying as if this were a Bach suite.

Whatever the comparisons, this Celestial Harmonies CD revives a now somewhat legendary recording which appeared in 1979 on Unicorn, made in the presence of the composer, and with his approval: “Roger Woodward is a pianistic genius because he has known how to re-invent the piano in the light of the works which inspire him, just as the works themselves become re-inspired by what he breathes into them… [his] piano has already influenced the way I write.” Just skimming through Woodward’s anecdotes about his experiences with Barraqué show that he wouldn’t have said such things if he hadn’t meant them: “He was intolerant of almost everything and found little that was worthy in life or art.”

This entire release, from the actual recording to the evocative and intensely recollected booklet notes, is a real slice of 20th century musical creative experience. Roger is seen pictured, long-haired and worldly, while the presence of Barraqué hovers over him with a critical gaze under which many a lesser performer would no doubt have wilted.

Many a lesser performer would also wilt at the prospect of playing this music, which is an assault on the senses from the outset, and a sustained dose of avant-garde complexity which remains demanding well over sixty years after its conception. Woodward’s performance is an entirely different experience at least to that of Litwin on CPO, who has nothing of Woodward’s wild spirit and ceaselessly searching energy.

Looking at the score there is a detail and multi-layered sense of fantasy in the writing which becomes a reward and a treat the more deeply you engage with it intellectually. It is quite easy to feel that this is an intractable and somewhat manic pianistic tour de force which is too difficult to assimilate, but it is also not that hard to make the effort, engage with the imagination at work and reap the unsettling rewards of the work and its performance. Following the score reveals a staggering and almost superhuman achievement, and despite the superficially long duration of this Sonate as a whole I for one was constantly reminded of the actual compactness of the writing. I’m not always impressed by large-scale piano works and can find them ultimately annoying. As a composer, what I find intriguing about Barraqué’s work is that you have the sense that removing even a single note might result in the entire edifice melting into some unreachable dimension. It has fragility as well as a brutal, even at times arrogant presence. It demands its right to existence, but is also exposed and feels easy to damage through some kind of intangible iconoclasm. Is it relevant today? Such music can be viewed as a cul de sac whose effect on contemporary music in our times is only marginal, but even marginal effects have their lineage and descendants. In order to reject something we must first be aware of it, and being aware of that something inevitable and irreversibly changes us.

This is serial music, but it is also poetic. Silence is an essential element in its proportions and content, as are echoes and memory – the active participation of the listener. It’s not for everyday listening, but it is more stimulating than draining of your energies. Expertly given digital restoration from the original master tapes by Gideon Boss, the sound is warmly analogue, with a few very marginal issues which are only really audible at higher volume and through headphones. There is for instance a small amount of pre-echo on the tape which has been excised from longer silences but still creeps in amidst more complex passages. There is barely any tape hiss and the balance in the large-sounding Abbey Road acoustic is very fine, with superb detail and dynamics. If you can find an original LP without crackle and end of side distortion the best of luck to you: I’ll take this CD any day as a principal source for this remarkable work.

Dominy Clements