written by Richard Whitehouse
Boulez: Complete Music for Solo Piano [Piano Sonatas – No. 1; No. 2; No. 3 (movements 3a and 2). 12 Notations; Incises (revised version), Un page d’éphéméride]
Marc Ponthus (piano)
Marc Ponthus, an American pianist in the lineage of Charles Rosen and Paul Jacobs, tackles the (nominally) complete piano music of Pierre Boulez – a select though vital body of work particularly in terms of understanding his evolution over the first decade of creative maturity.
What’s the music like?
Boulez’s meteoric rise to the forefront of the European avant-garde is much in evidence here. Withdrawn for over four decades, the set of 12 Notations (1945) is both an investigation and critique of the serial thinking absorbed from Schoenberg and Webern – brief though eventful miniatures at once intriguing and sardonic.
Ponthus renders them with due precision, then is no less perceptive in the First Piano Sonata (1946) whose two compact movements unfold in respectively speculative and incisive terms. The Second Piano Sonata (1948) is the climax of this phase, its outwardly orthodox four-movement design acknowledging while dismantling Classical antecedents via an often assaultive virtuosity of which Ponthus is fully in command. Those who might know Maurizio Pollini’s magisterial 1976 account will find this version a worthy successor.
Boulez’s subsequent piano music parallels the ambivalence of his work as a whole. Envisaged as an ambitious five-movement format, only the second and third movements (the latter in its retrograde version) of his Third Piano Sonata (1957) have been published – Ponthus relishing glacial expressive contrasts in Constellation-Miroir then underlining the ingenious variation process of Trope.
Incises (1994) began as a competition test-piece, expanded with this 2001 version into a fantasy of headlong dynamism and suspenseful inaction. It might have served as springboard for a concertante piece that remained unrealized, while Un page d’éphéméride (2005) was intended as starting-point for a piano cycle that never was; what remains is a four-minute étude whose enticing sonority and glistening filigree denote the sure hand of a master.
Does it all work?
Yes, but just how and why depends on listeners’ insight into and understanding of a tradition such as Boulez approached via an engaged antagonism that did not atrophy so much as open-out experientially over time. Those who value their musical preconceptions should steer clear.
Is it recommended?
Indeed, with the proviso that the original version of Incises might have been included, as also the opening Antiphonie movement (given at Aldeburgh only last year) of the Third Sonata. The sound has unsparing clarity, with the booklet note and interview a mine of information.