About this Recording
8.553353 - BOULEZ: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3

Pierre Boulez (b

Pierre Boulez (b. 1925)

Piano Sonatas


Pierre Boulez occupies a unique position in French music, distinguished internationally as a composer, a conductor and a theorist. A pupil of Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire, he turned to the serialism of Schoenberg. His reputation was first established in 1948 by the second of his three piano sonatas, first performed by Yvonne Loriod at Oarmstadt and followed by the

Livre pour quatuor, which, like certain later works, allows the players some freedom of choice and suggested the total serialism of compositions that immediately followed. His importance in twentieth century music was further emphasised by the remarkable Le marteau sans maitre in the 1950s and by Pli selon pli, with its flexibility of structure. Boulezremains one of the most important and influential composers and teachers in contemporary terms, an achievement parallelled by his work as a conductor, atone time with both the BBCsymphony and the New York Philharmonic Orchestras, where he is known for his clarity of interpretation and his imaginative understanding of the music he directs.


Keith Anderson


The three piano sonatas of Pierre Boulez occupy an important position in piano literature of the twentieth century .The instrument, in fact, has not been central to the work of the majority of composers of the century as it was to those of the nineteenth. The thirty-two sonatas of Beethoven were for long a constraining factor. Composers of the first half of the twentieth century tried to escape from this. Generally speaking, major composers of the second half of the century have not composed any more for the piano, but some of them have more easily opted for the instrumental genre of the sonata. Since 1945 the model of Beethoven has been a solid point of reference for composers who have turned to the form in the perspective of a reconstruction of musical language.


Composed in 1946, the First Sonata of Pierre Boulez is in two movements, a slow followed bya fast. In the first four bars of the work the composer presents five characteristic and very different figures, easily distinguishable by the listener. These will serve as the basic material of the first movement: a simple and calm interval, a low note with an appoggiatura, a single note in the highest register, a rapid and impetuous figure leading to a deep stressed note, a broadly spreading polyphonic chord, low and high in register. The work of the composer has consisted in taking these elements and varying the parameters that define them. The rapid figure thus reappears at bar 14, always descending, but its character is different, since it decreases in dynamic to a note played pianissimo.


In the whole movement a great variety of length and of meaning of silences can be noticed, with the use of the entire range of the keyboard and sudden changes of dynamics, together with the multiplicity of figures dealt with. These characteristics are found in the second movement of the sonata. This is a vast "toccata", constructed from rapid figures, alternating between the two hands -figures that may have rounded outline with an intimate fusion of voices. In this

early composition there are already evident some of the elements that will define the compositional style of Pierre Boulez: clarity and rigour of expression, and a tendency to brilliant outbursts.


The Second Sonata was written two years later. It is a more extended and ambitious work, organized in four movements, three fast and one slow .From the first bars all the differences that distinguish this sonata from the first are apparent. Silences take up a suitable part of the taut discourse, full of musical statements, often connected, a new feature, by trills and demanding

the sustained attention of the listener. Here the Beethoven sonata ideal is realised. Taken in isolation, a movement no longer only has value in its relationship with other movements; the riches this movement contains mark it also as a complete work in itself, a model of the whole. This said, the second movement is more economic in measurable musical statements - it is the traditional sonata slow movement. Its completeness is no less definite. Here anew element is apparent in comparison with the first sonata: the building up of a certain dramatic character, a progress of discourse towards a tension to be resolved, something that two years before the composer had avoided. The third movement -a true scherzo -is not without reference to the malleability found in the second: some scattered elements, stated fragmentarily, are brought gradually together in a fusion of great complexity. Although there are connections with the feverish first movement, the fourth is still more complex in that it is the definite ending of the work and brings together and concentrates in itself the different paths marked out in the preceding movements. Frequent directions, associated with the sudden and continual changes of mood, indicate the richness of this integrated movement." Very fine shades in a grey painting" and pulverise the sound are two, among others, nearly in the manner of Debussy, that speak of the poetic ambition that is here at work.


Written between 1957 and 1958, the Third Sonata is a work that has given rise to a number of commentaries. Its plan has been described by the composer himself in a famous theoretical article. As the ambition ofPierre Boulezwas to take into consideration the researches of certain writers in form -principally the idea of the Livre formulated by Mallarme in 1885 -a great many commentators have gone one better than the literary tenor of the plan, interesting in itself but bearing little of relevance to the listener.


The Third Sonata of Pierre Boulez was conceived at a time when composers were questioning the idea of the freedom of the interpreter, after a historical phase, called post-serial, which had laid down, even in its smallest details, the different parameters of musical interpretation. The Third Sonata reacts against the tyranny of the composer and opens certain doors, but, happily it can be said, closes others.


The freedom that is given to the interpreter in this work concerns the order of movements and the internal arrangement of dialogue within each of the movements. That is all. This freedom is not audible to the listener, to whom, in general, two different and successive interpretations are not offered. The opening of the work -reacting against the tradition of a fixed order that affects the idea itself of the score - is found again strangely in the fact that the Third

Sonata, which is always described as in five movements (or formative elements) by the composer and his commentators, has in fact only two published movements - Trope and Constellation (or Constellation-miroir). The others exist, but are to be revised. The work is therefore always open, in the sense that it is always still in process of composition.


The opening is reduced, if one follows what has been published. Theoretically there are eight possibilities of reading the order of the formative elements. Since the published score consists simply of two elements, the choices are reduced to two: Trope can be played before Constellation or after Constellation-miroir, which is the double reflection of Constellation, when the order of reading is reversed.


Musically Constellation (or Constellation-miroir) is a passage marked with arrows that connects the Points sections (figured in green) and the Blocs sections (figured in red). This unlinear passage which makes of the score a real navigation map nevertheless excludes primary simplifications: Blocs and Points are to be understood as tendencies respectively towards vertical chords and to horizontal lines and are susceptible to mixture between the two.


Trope offers another kind of beginning. The score is a spirally bound book that can be opened wherever one likes but must be played to the end wherever one starts and whatever the direction chosen. In the two formative elements the musical material is more rarefied than in the second sonata. The discourse proceeds always in bursts of sound but the composer has preferred sustained notes, resonances, in short, introspection.


Dominique Druhen

(English version by Keith Anderson)


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