Pierre Boulez

Piano Sonata No. 2

    Description by John Keillor

    Boulez wrote his Second Piano Sonata at the age of twenty-three in 1948. Like the first sonata, Beethoven is an important subject in the second one as well. The German master's Hammerklavier fugal subject from the Op. 106 is quoted on the first page. Boulez's Second Piano Sonata reflects such a rigorous understanding of Beethoven's style that it breaks through the academic stranglehold on Beethoven scholarship. This is not to say that Boulez's 1948 work eschews the value of academia's cumulative knowledge on Beethoven, but rather it rejuvenates Beethoven's artistic relevance again. Boulez does so by displaying a flawless, trained eye for how a Beethoven piano sonata is structured, as Brahms did in his Op. 1. Themes, development, and recapitulation are handled with rigor and panache. In direct homage to the Hammerklavier fugue, Boulez's Second Piano Sonata frequently proceeds in imitative counterpoint. Throughout the work's four movements, the composer will not let the alert listener forget for an instant that he knows Beethoven's Op. 109 as well as anyone, and can use it to make a very fine piano work of his own. For listeners who are not familiar with his serialist syntax, Boulez's demonstrations to this effect may require careful and patient scrutiny. While the textures he creates could not be called gorgeous, they definitely are engaging. The young French composer's music was serious to the point of being acerbic. The "animal warmth" that Schoenberg complained about in older music is certainly not there, but it does have a level of heat. There is not much in terms of luxuriance, but the Second Piano Sonata contains oceans of meaning and comprehensibility. It is so strenuously interconnected that following its many courses can be an intense challenge. The listener may feel dared to keep up with the internal associations, though that gauntlet was thrown down specifically for the academics to pick up. Boulez's mission was what fascinated historians, and his attack on the academic grip on Beethoven was actually directed towards composers. It was the composers' fears of comparison to Beethoven that made them leave the German master's legacy to the scholars for their exclusive exploration. Boulez also attacked composers who did not reconcile themselves to the twelve-tone method, calling their music "useless." He once led a crowd to boycott a performance of Messiaen's music. Messiaen was Boulez's teacher, a gracious and generous man by all accounts, though not progressive enough for his famous pupil who has often been intent on whipping an unsatisfactorily self-satisfied twentieth-century into shape. His Second Piano Sonata is indicative of this sort of energy and self-assurance. One can listen to it for its mind-boggling sophistication and discover that there is more to hear with every listen. Perhaps more pleasurably, one can hear in it a young genius for whom music holds an overwhelming importance that bears not even the rumor of a competitor. It seems unimaginable that any cause could fail with Boulez among its officers, and that love of music inspires confidence and the imagination.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Extrêmement rapide
    2. Lent
    3. Modéré, presque vif
    4. Vif

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2016 IBA [Idil Biret Archives] / Naxos 8501504
    2016 Bridge BCD 9456
    2016 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4796018
    2015 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4795448
    2015 DG Deutsche Grammophon / Universal Music France 4811510
    2012 Cybele KIG 004
    2011 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4779918
    2011 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2011 Hat Hut Records / Hat[now]Art 162
    2010 DG Deutsche Grammophon
    2010 IBA [Idil Biret Archives] / Naxos 8571277
    2009 Naïve 40005
    2006 Accord 4769209
    2006 Universal Music
    2005 DG Deutsche Grammophon 002894775328
    2002 DG Deutsche Grammophon 471350
    2000 Montaigne 061
    1999 DG Deutsche Grammophon 447398
    1995 Naxos 553353
    1995 DG Deutsche Grammophon 447431
    1993 Philips 438 906-2PH
    1985 Astree 7716
    DG Deutsche Grammophon 471359