Pierre Boulez and Pierre-Laurent Aimard perform works by Ravel, Bartók and Boulez
06 Jun 2009
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz 106 (35 min.)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D major for the left hand (27 min.)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard Piano
Notations for orchestra: I–IV, VII (20 min.)
Pierre Boulez and Pierre-Laurent Aimard in conversation with Christoph Franke (16 min.)
These evenings were initially planned as being completely French, presenting only the “crème de la crème” from the neighbouring country. However, then the conductor Pierre Boulez found that a touch of Hungary would round everything off perfectly. An excellent idea, since it brings two so-called key works from the first half of the 20th century together face to face: Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, one of the great composer’s most masterly creations, and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which Maurice Ravel initially composed for Paul Wittgenstein, the fantastic pianist who lost his right arm in the First World War, a work which presents a challenge even to pianists performing with both hands. Boulez juxtaposes this with one of his own works, rightly titled “work in progress”. The composer has been perfecting his Notations for decades, and he will probably continue refining his perhaps most significant opus for what seems like eternity.
Plumbing the Potential
Musical economy in works by Bartók, Ravel and Boulez
The entry for Béla Bartók in Fasquelle’s Encyclopédie de la musique (1958) refers to the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta as a “great instrumental bonanza”, whose first movement “is without doubt the finest example, indeed a touchstone, of Bartók’s refined idiom”. The author of these words was a 33-year-old composer who did not always express such approval of precursors or colleagues: Pierre Boulez. But he was taken with this work. When Boulez later wrote a piece for three pianos, three harps and three percussionists (sur Incises, 1996-08), it gave off a faint echo of Bartók’s “bonanza”. Bartók’s idiosyncratically scored work does indeed represent a high point among modern classics, which makes it all the more astonishing that he was obliged to conform this distinctive conception to the constraints of a commission.
In 1936 the Swiss patron and conductor Paul Sacher requested a work from Bartók to mark the tenth anniversary of his Basle Chamber Orchestra: something worthy of the occasion but also easy to perform (i.e. requiring as few additional players as possible). Bartók sized up the conditions and produced a finished score after barely three months of work. It consists of four movements that seem to be sprinting through the history of musical forms. The “study trip” begins with a chromatic fugue, whose even-numbered entries (Nos. 2-12) open out in rising fifths from the initial “A”, while the odd-numbered entries (Nos. 3-11) descend by fifths, a pattern then reversed with the theme inverted (and, from the entrance of the celesta, mirrored) until the music concludes in unison on the opening “A”. Taking a historical step forward, in a manner of speaking (from Baroque to Classical), the second movement represents sonata form. Next comes an Adagio in Bartók’s favoured, strictly symmetrical arch form, and finally a rondo-like finale, which fuses the elements already introduced into a new language, with a contribution from Bartók’s folk music research.
It wasn’t only Balkan folk music that set off a culture shock in Bartók: modern French music also made a powerful impact upon him. In 1938, on the first anniversary of the death of Maurice Ravel, he wrote that the advent of a great composer (Debussy) could be a fluke; but when he is followed by a second genius (Ravel), one is experiencing “the crystallization of a phenomenon emanating from the atmosphere of a country”. Debussy and Ravel’s historical proximity and related predilections misled posterity into regarding their music as two sides of the same “impressionist” coin. But Ravel’s Concerto in D major for the Left Hand is far removed from Debussy – as well as from his own “two-handed” Piano Concerto in G major. He had just begun the latter work at the end of 1929 when he received a commission from Vienna: Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in World War I, requested a piano concerto for the left hand. With a great deal of discipline – and a great deal of money – Wittgenstein was able to pursue a “left-handed” pianist’s career, to which composers including Britten, Prokofiev and Strauss made contributions. Ravel’s piece, however, is the only one of 17 written for Wittgenstein that has secured a place in the repertoire – in part, perhaps, because it sounds least like a pièce d’occasion.
For Ravel, this unusual commission provided a welcome complement to the G major Concerto: “It was an interesting experience to conceive and realize the two concertos at the same time,” he later told a journalist from the Daily Telegraph. “The Concerto for Left Hand Alone is quite different from the first, and has only one movement, with many jazz effects; the writing is not so simple.” In comparison with its two-hand twin, the left-hand concerto is dark and heavy. It opens with a contrabassoon theme crawling upwards over double-bass arpeggios. After the whole orchestra is taken over by this motion, the piano bursts in with a cadenza in which the soloist’s left hand paraphrases the introduction. A fast middle section resolves the initial disconnected juxtaposition of soloist and orchestra with a jazz-inspired dialogue for trumpet and piano. The slow final section forms a recapitulation in which the piano – apart from a brilliantly virtuosic cadenza – is wholly integrated into the orchestra.
As a master of instrumentation, Pierre Boulez stands squarely in the tradition of Maurice Ravel: he has made an orchestral arrangement of Ravel’s curious little Frontispice for two pianos, five hands, and, more significantly, has further developed his own piano pieces into large orchestral works. Yet what a difference in detail there is between the two composers! With Ravel the question of whether the piano or the orchestral version came first is sometimes as hard to answer as that of the chicken and the egg. Within the story of his oeuvre, the case of Boulez’s Notations is abnormally clear: in February 1945, Douze Notations by the then 19-year-old composer were premiered in Paris – twelve piano miniatures which then were lost in the shuffle in those early days. Three decades later a photocopy of the missing work came to light, and the meanwhile famous composer decided to develop the tiny pieces into orchestral movements. This procedure is unusual in Boulez’s complex creative output: more than almost any other composer, his typical modus operandi is open-ended. Boulez produces works of art that are subject to potential endless further development: he calls the process “proliferation”, whereby his music may continue to evolve over a period of years (as if without the author’s active input).
The orchestral Notations I-IV extended the twelve-bar piano prototypes so far, both vertically and horizontally, that their original sequence was no longer valid. If one places the little volume of piano music next to the large-format orchestra scores, one can only marvel at the compositional texture of some 70 parts. And yet: the piano models, included as epigraphs in the scores, are still recognizable, though bathed in a completely different light. In contrast to the practice, still cultivated by Anton Webern, of clarifying structures through instrumentation, Boulez in the orchestral Notations is dedicated to obscuring them. The rhythmic attack of the fourth piano Notation, for example, is deliberately displaced by the comparatively massive orchestra, but this distortion triggers a formal chain reaction without destroying the original. In the second Notation, Boulez turns the relentlessly pounding piano ostinato into a gripping orchestral added attraction.
Notations V-VI and VIII-XII do not yet exist as arrangements, but Notation VII was published as a separate orchestral piece in 1997. Already a meditative piece in its original version, with its characteristic tritone interjections, it may have been especially suitable for accommodation with Boulez’s style as evolved over the intervening years. However, the half-life of such evaluations can be even shorter than the validity of some Boulez work versions: following his Third Piano Sonata (1955-57), overhasty commentators had already predicted the composer’s avoidance of the instrument, yet the aforementioned work sur Incises is based on the rich material of a 1994 piano miniature (revised in 2001), and Boulez wrote his Pages d’éphéméride in 2005 for solo piano. Who knows? One day this music, too, may find itself orchestrally “proliferated”.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard was born in Lyon in 1957 and studied with Yvonne Loriod and Maria Curcio at the Paris Conservatoire. He won the 1973 International Messiaen Competition and with that was launched on his international career. For eighteen years he worked as solo pianist with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, taking part in countless world premieres and establishing a reputation for himself as one of the leading interpreters of contemporary music. Known especially for his unusual take on a repertory deemed familiar, he is also a committed teacher and communicator, holding teaching posts in Paris and Cologne and doing much to introduce audiences to works of all periods and to currents in new music. Among his awards are a Grammy and an ECHO Klassik Prize. In 2005 the Royal Philharmonic Society voted him Instrumentalist of the Year, an accolade that was bestowed on him again in 2007, this time by Musical America. In 2008 he served as artistic director of the Messiaen Festival held at London’s Southbank Centre. He made his Philharmonie debut in mid-December 1997 within the framework of a piano recital organized by the Berliner Philharmoniker and since then has returned many times for the orchestra’s symphony and chamber concerts as well as giving solo recitals. During the 2006/07 season he was the orchestra’s pianist-in-residence.
The French composer, pianist, conductor and theorist Pierre Boulez was born at Montbrison on the Loire on 26 March 1925. On moving to Paris, he initially studied natural science but in 1943 decided to turn to composition. Among his teachers were Olivier Messiaen, René Leibowitz and Arthur Honegger. He first worked as a conductor in the mid-forties and in 1955 founded the ensemble Domaine Musical. That same year he also began teaching at the Darmstadt Summer School for New Music. Later stages in his conducting career have included engagements with the South-West German Radio Orchestra, the Bayreuth Festival, where his conducting of Parsifal in 1966 attracted international attention, and the Cleveland Orchestra. In 1971 he was appointed principal conductor of both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. In the mid-seventies he founded the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris and became head of the Ensemble Intercontemporain that was established at the same time. He has written many books and essays on music. Among his many distinguished awards are the 1977 Ernst von Siemens Prize, the 1996 Berlin Art Prize and the 1996 Swedish Polar Music Prize. Pierre Boulez first conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker in 1961 and has returned on frequent occasions since then. In October 2005 the Foundation marked his eightieth birthday with a performance of Répons in the Chamber Music Room in which Boulez himself took charge of the electronic dimension of the piece. In the middle of April 2008 he took part in a concert marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the foundation of the Scharoun Ensemble.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard appears in the Digital Concert Hall courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon.