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Pierre BOULEZ (1925-2016)
Complete Music for Solo Piano

Incises (version 2001) [10:02]
Douze Notations pour piano (1945) [9:44]
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1946) [9:05]
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1947-48) [28:56]
Piano Sonata No. 3 (1955-57) [18:38]
Une page d'éphéméride (2005) [3:54]
Marc Ponthus (piano)
rec. 1 July 2015, DiMenna Centre, New York USA (Incises), 11-12 December 2012 & 10-14 January 2013, American Academy of Arts & Letters, New York, USA, (the rest).
BRIDGE 9456 A/B [80:35]

On these discs, Marc Ponthus plays all of the late Pierre Boulez's solo piano music, including the very last works, the expanded 2001 version of Incises and 2005’s Une page d'éphéméride. But as the dates above suggest, this is largely a young man’s music. The bulk of Boulez's solo piano output, including the three sonatas, comes from his twenties and early thirties when he was at his most productive and most radical. It all used to sound – if one could find a performance – as if the young composer was auditioning already for the role of leader of the post-war avant-garde. Now that the great man is one with Bach and Beethoven, we can hear it all as music rather than manifesto. And what music it is! Challenging to be sure, but always rewarding the effort it requires of both player and listener.

The three sonatas are the heart of this oeuvre and this disc and are well differentiated. As the excellent booklet note by Matthew Mendez points out, the First Sonata offers “brutality with refinement, the Second largely emphasises the former quality” and the Third “flips the equation”. Marc Ponthus brings out these contrasts nicely, as ferocious as any in the tersely turbulent passages, and as expressive as he dares in the quasi-lyrical moments. (Debussy is almost suggested at some moments of his quieter playing.) Of course there is a seeming paradox in one of music’s great iconoclasts writing sonatas – which by definition raises certain expectations that at least elements of conventional sonata form will be discernible. And despite the serial technique there are some signposts, most obviously the contrasts of the strident and the sensuous, and even an ABABA first movement for the First Sonata. Again, Mendez’s notes are a considerable help in discerning these elements, and so is the playing.

The composer tells us the keyboard writing of the short First Sonata is indebted to Schoenberg’s atonal piano works, in which he saw “a violence of expression that conveys a kind of delirium”. Ponthus sees it that way too, with some passages approximating almost to piano playing as pugilism. The second movement, especially its passages of moto perpetuo writing, is given most convincingly, the pianist deeply involved in the music. The Second Sonata, (which Ponthus has recorded before on Lontano - review), has been likened to a modernist Hammerklavier Sonata. It is often relentless, and given here with headlong élan. Here as elsewhere, it is eventually possible to discern the form, but also the music’s formidable technical challenges make it exciting on first hearing, when executed with such virtuosity. It might help the uninitiated or the warily curious to first view the brief passages Marc Ponthus plays on You-tube, where he also talks about the piece. His skill is astonishing, rivalling even Pollini, who has championed the work in concert and on disc.

The unfinished Third Sonata has an open form derived from the experiments of Mallarmé, so that the movements or “Formants” and the sections within them, can be played in a (constrained) sequence of the pianist’s choosing. In the magnificent Boulez exhibition in Paris in 2015, one could view the manuscript score, with its red and green coloured blocs of music and arrows indicating possible pathways between sections, and see Boulez explaining it all on film. Apart from anything else, this indeterminacy means comparing different recorded versions is less straightforward than usual. Both the rival versions I know, Pi-Hsien Chen on Hat Hut Records and Paavali Jumppanen on DGG, place Formant 3 before Formant 2, whereas Ponthus does the reverse. Perhaps the answer is for future CDs of this work to have the sections tracked so that these choices can also be made by the listener. We would need the ‘allowed’ sequence Boulez indicates to be explained in the booklet (a random sequence was never envisaged).

Ponthus’s choices in the Third Sonata sound persuasive enough to me, not least because the playing here is as good as this work has ever been given. The engineering is very good here too, allowing one to hear the resonance and decay Boulez deploys at times, and for which Ponthus actually had his instrument linked up via a pedal extension to a second piano, as Boulez himself suggested to him, and as Ponthus explains in a revealing interview in the booklet. The same care and dedicated preparation you hear in the sonatas also informs the recordings of Incises and Douze Notations, the other main works in the collection.

Not that Ponthus has the field to himself with the complete ouevre, as there is an SACD version of it by Vassilakis on Cybele, which I have not heard but which has won high praise, including on MusicWeb (review). The sonatas alone have been given on single disc issues by Chen and by Jumppanen, as mentioned above, and by Idil Biret on Naxos. All are good, but only Chen fills out her CD with the most closely related extra music, the early Douze Notations, which just precede the First Sonata. Chen is stunning technically too, on a par with Ponthus in that regard. But this pair of Bridge discs probably now leads the field. It has very good sound, valuable notes, and the two CDs are priced as one. Gramophone’s reviewer complained about Bridge’s cover art, but it is no worse than DGG’s louche effort for Trifonov’s recent Rachmaninov issue. (Still, Bridge might have done better to use the nice picture from the booklet of the pianist enjoying a drink with the composer.) But it’s the contents of the disc that count, and Ponthus is a superb guide to some of the most challenging music of the mid 20th century.

Roy Westbrook 



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