Boulez’s Amazing Piano Sonatas

Piano Sonatas 1-3 (Dig)

Pierre Boulez, the living legend of modern music, as composer, conductor, teacher, provacateur, turns 80 this year. His recording label (DG) is issuing a number of new recordings to celebrate Boulez’s anniversary. One of these new recordings is of Boulez’s three early piano sonatas performed by the remarkable young Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen.

These sonatas are among the hallmarks of twentieth century music, besides being among the most difficult works for piano ever composed. Yvonne Loriod, pianist and wife of Olivier Messiaen, for whom Messiaen wrote his piano works, was the first to perform Boulez’s second sonata. Legend has it that Loriod (a formidable pianist) broke into tears when she saw the score, with its thorny rhythms and cascade of notes without any discernable (or “finger-able”) patterns. It is through sheer force of will that a musician learns this music.

Over the years pianists have become accustomed to the Boulez’s musical language, and this new recording has the fluency of a pianist playing a Mozart sonata. True, it sounds very different, but these are musical works, not just a bunch of notes thrown on the page. This is not music for everyone (There ain’t no tunes to hum here.) but for an adventure, give it a listen.

Incidentally, Pierre Boulez is a frequent guest conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra. His concerts are always worth hearing. He’ll be back the end of April and the beginning of May conducting works by Stravinsky and Boulez.