Pierre Boulez and Pierre-Laurent Aimard with works by Ravel, Bartók and Boulez

06 Jun 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Pierre Boulez

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

  • Béla Bartók
    Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Sz 106 (35 min.)

  • Maurice Ravel
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D major for the left hand (27 min.)

    Pierre-Laurent Aimard Piano

  • Pierre Boulez
    Notations for orchestra: I–IV, VII (20 min.)

  • free

    Pierre Boulez and Pierre-Laurent Aimard in conversation with Christoph Franke (16 min.)

There are a number of 20th-century works that owe their existence to a war injury: the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, the older brother of the philosopher Ludwig, lost his right arm in World War I. With the intention of continuing his musical career he commissioned leading composers of that day to write works for the left hand. In addition to such artists as Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Benjamin Britten and Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel also complied with the wishes of the industrialist’s son. His Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, premiered in 1929, is unquestionably the most important of the compositions written for Wittgenstein. In a concert of the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Pierre Boulez, soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who is acclaimed not least for his interpretations of contemporary music, gave a brilliant performance.

The programme reflected a chronological and stylistic focus typical of Boulez: Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, which is characterized by rhythmic elan, conceptual refinement and unusual instrumentation, was composed only six years after Ravel’s Concerto. The origins of Boulez’s own Notations also date back to the same period of music history, namely 1945, when he composed the first version for piano. Boulez was not only fascinated by developments in music history but also strived for ongoing growth in his own works. The last of the five pieces, arranged for large orchestra and substantially expanded in structure and length, did not appear until 1997, 52 years after the original version.

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”.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

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.

Deutsche GrammophonPierre-Laurent Aimard appears in the Digital Concert Hall courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon.

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