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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Concert Review: Blocks, Points and High Explosives

The Piano Music of Pierre Boulez at Zankel Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich played Pierre Boulez' piano works
on Monday night at Zankel Hall. Photo by Neda Navae © 2015 ECM Records.
There are many words that can be used to describe Pierre Boulez. Composer, innovator, iconoclast, maverick, visionary all come immediately to mind following Monday night's recital at Zankel Hall. At this concert, pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich had agreed to perform the difficult feat of playing the composer's complete repertory for solo piano as part of their current North American tour.

Mr. Aimard and Ms. Stefanovich offered narration and musical examples between each work, using the piano to illustrate key points before diving into this difficult music. Boulez, who will turn 90 on March 26, wrote music that spans 70 years of a career in which he spearheaded the rise of total serialization in music, encouraged the destruction of the iconic "composer system" and invented a compositional style that influenced all kinds of music in the last half of the 20th century. (He also became one of the most important conductors and interpreters of the repertory but that's material for a different review.)

The concert opened with Douze Notations, ephemeral works written when the composer was just 20 years old. These short pieces contain a good deal of aphoristic humor and something approaching melodic warmth. Mr. Aimard played them in quick succession, alternating between high stinging flights and thuds in the bass register. Jazzy textures and wisps of impressionism battled with leaping, jagged intervals. Heard together, these little works make a train of thought with some insight into Boulez' influences: Webern, Stravinsky and Boulez' own teacher Messiaen.

The first movement of Sonata No. 1 presented a face-off between a series of gazelle-like interval leaps and a set of t heavy tone clusters. These come as short, sharp shocks of sound, interrupting the figures in the upper and middle registers. The second movement opened with a flood of rapid-fire notes, almost like frenetic jazz, but its rhythms eventually yielded to a restatement of the interval idea.

Sonata No. 2 is a very different beast, a 30-minute monster that terrorizes pianists the way climbers in northern Pakistan are wary of going up K2. The four movements are based on Beethoven's Hammerklavier, and are a systematic and brutal deconstruction of the Romantic style as established by that watershed piece. The searing opening movement was played with power and precision by Ms. Stefanovich, who brought rhythmic drive and a taut, terse narrative to this long sonata form.

A slow movement followed, built from tiny, aphoristic phrases that rang like chimes before building to a thunderous climax. The dance movement was frantic and exhausting, with the complicated polyrhythms coming out with savage fury, as Boulez' new aesthetic gleefully defaced classical form. Ms. Stefanovich saved her best chops for the final movement, a powerful finale that demanded the very finest in technique in the creation of this potent tornado of sound.

Mr. Aimard returned for the second half of the concert, which opened with the two approved and published movements of Sonata No. 3, which remains technically unfinished despite being published back in 1957. This is much more reflective music, as if the temples of art had been torn down in order to see the night sky above. Indeed, the first movement Constellation Miroirs featured a starry sky of "points" and "blocks", contrasting musical ideas usually consisting of single notes and tone clusters with the occasional chord hidden in the harmony.

Leaning on the sustain pedal to make the piano ring like a carillon, Mr. Aimard presented this musical battle as a sort of chess match, with chiming sounds (the points) clashing with the gruff blocks. The battle ended with an agreement between the two musical forces to peaceably coexist. The second movement Trope is indeterminate the performer to choose his own order for its four sections. Not knowing which order Mr. Aimard chose, it can be said that this performance was both tender and muscular, ending with an impressive series of thunderous tone-blocks.

Following the Sonata, Ms. Stefanovich played Incises (a piece written to torment participants in piano competitions) with fire and gusto, capturing the parodistic humor in the virtuoso passages while engaging in jaw-dropping feats of pianistic legerdemain. Mr. Aimard returned for Un page d'éphéméride, a three-minute album leaf for young players with the ability to execute its difficult passage-work.

The concert ended with Structures Livre II, a two-movement work that pitted these virtuoso pianists against each other. Their two pianos became a great beast of sound, engaging in rhythmic interplay that pitted rigorous form against free interpretation in a piece that was at once fierce competition and friendly struggle. Mr. Aimard took the leading role, presenting the thematic material and allowing Ms. Stefanovich to execute the free passages. In the final movement, she chose a later version of the piece and executed a long, final descending cadenza, an exclamation point at the end of this explosive concert.

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