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 by a 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, abroadly 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 offigures 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, füll 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 a new 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 articie. As the ambition of Pierre Boulez was to take into consideration the researches of certain writers in form – principally the idea of the Livre formulated by Mallarmé 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 äs 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 verticalchords 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: Keith Anderson

© for Naxos / HNH

Classical Net CD Review
November 1995 – by Alex Heffes
November 1995
Pierre Boulez, celebrating his 70th birthday this year, stands at the peak of a musical career spanning 50 years. His output as a composer is, in fact, comparatively small: best known are his influential early works dating from the late 1940s to 1960s. This is, no doubt, due to his meticulous working methods, as well as a high level of commitment to conducting, teaching and writing. These two new discs provide a rounded profile of Boulez on the concert platform.The piano sonatas offer substantial challenges to both performer and listener. This is met with conviction and bravura by the distinguished Turkish pianist Idil Biret. Most striking is her ability to articulate with clarity and insight the complex and shifting textures that seem to drive the musical development. The First Sonata, dating from 1946, is a compact work that opens with a number of brief figures and textures that form the basis of the whole piece. This technique is developed into more ambitious proportions in the Second Sonata (which plays for just under 30 minutes) in which Biret conveys a broad and dramatic approach. The performance is captured extremely vividly in this studio recording originally made by Radio France.

Complementary to the piano sonatas, the 12 piano fragments, Notations, on Deutsche Grammophon, outline Boulez’s early approach towards texture and its relation to form. Each movement lasts between 25 seconds and two minutes, every sketch having its own distinctive fabric shaped in detail by Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the piano. This disc also contains the world premiere recording of the recent work, Explosante-Fixe, developed especially for this recording at IRCAM with which Boulez has been associated for many years. At the work’s centre three flutes exchange and transform material that undergoes a further electronic transformation, often creating an ambiguity between the electronic elements and the textures created in the orchestral accompaniment. It makes interesting listening, though with its dependence on IRCAM’s costly and sophisticated equipment, its concert life in this form may not be a busy one…

It sometimes seems as if Pierre Boulez has spent a lifetime paying the penalty for having found composition so easy as a young man. The first two piano sonatas, works of his early twenties, are formidably assured in technique and tremendously rich in ideas. Those sections of the Third Sonata released for performance sound cold and tentative by comparison. Or is it that the Third Sonata’s much more extreme rejection of tradition is itself a triumph, an authentic modernity that stands out the more prominently when so much else in contemporary music favours compromise and conformity?Such thoughts are inspired by Idil Biret’s absorbing new disc. At first I wondered if she might be in danger of exaggerating the contrasts in the First Sonata’s first movement, but the broader picture proves to be well fleshed-out, the argument kept on the move, the young composer’s impatience and arrogance palpable in Biret’s steely touch and the rather dry but never merely harsh recorded sound. The Second Sonata is no less confidently done. While not superseding Pollini’s magisterial account, this is a strong alternative, not least in those passages in the second and fourth movements where a strange kind of atonal Debussian reflectiveness can be heard.

Is it in the Second Sonata’s remarkably diverse finale that premonitions of the Third Sonata’s rejections of continuity begin to appear? Quite possibly – and yet the immense power of the Second Sonata as a whole suggests why such experiments as No. 3 represents could never be a last word for Boulez. This disc is not the first to let us hear the three sonatas together, and Claude Helffer’s has many virtues. But Biret’s musical persuasiveness, and the up-to-date sound, earn this Naxos issue a strong recommendation.

American Record Guide
Jan./Feb. 1996, by Lehmann
ABC Radio, Australia
January 1996, by Andrew Ford
I suppose there’s no escaping the “importance” of these three sonatas. Still, an innocent ear could hardly fail to notice the cool, stylized, even decorative detachment beneath their superficially explosive gestures and disjunctions. They seem less a Schoenbergian struggle of cerebral energy and passionate protest than kaleidoscopic aural mobiles from whose randomly repeating patterns light glances off into prismatic sparklings. For all their difficulty, these are in their own way quite “pretty” pieces. Indeed, Stravinsky once praised Boulez’s music by saying that it reminded him of the clinking of ice in cocktail glasses. (Of course there are many who won’t find this an inviting description!)For all their fame, Boulez’s sonatas haven’t appeared on disc all that often. The late Alan Marks recorded a fine performance of 1 on LP, and Charles Rosen offered a rendition of 3 on vinyl also. David Burge tackled 2 but was outclassed by Pollini on a DG release that’s been reissued on CD. There are two or three newer CDs I haven’t heard. It’s hard to imagine a much more recommendable version than this one, though. Idil Biret is a formidable and adventurous virtuoso temperamentally drawn to very demanding music; and all three sonatas on one disc, in state-of-the-art sound, at Naxos’s low price, is an unbeatable bargain – an hour of musical accompaniment for savoring the cover’s Nicolas de Stael abstract painting and the very driest of vodka martinis. Well, who’d have thought it? When Naxos began issuing $10 discs of 16th-century polyphony I wrote in these pages that it would be good if they could provide a similar service for contemporary music, but that I wasn’t going to hold my breath.Now the label has put out its first disc of the music of Pierre Boulez, and so it’s time for this sceptic to eat his words. What’s more, it’s a very good disc, too.

Idil Biret’s playing displays both a thorough grasp of the notes and an understanding of the famous Boulez ‘flexibility’ (especially important in the third sonata – begun in 1957 and still, like so much of the composer’s work, ‘in progress’). Better, she has new things to say about the music, adopting slightly slower tempos than Pierre-Laurent Aimard in his performance of the first sonata (for Erato), and rather quicker tempos than Pollini in his classic account of the second sonata (DG).

As far as new (well, newish) music is concerned, this is certainly jumping in the deep end: Boulez makes no concessions in these works. I must stress that it’s far from the ideal introduction to this composer, but if it’s a sign of a new commitment to contemporary music by Naxos … well, good on them.

Pawel Bagnowski
music critic, Poland
Written by 21-year-old Boulez, Piano Sonata No. 1 consists of two contrasting movements. In the first one, five distinctive dynamic-sound figures are elaborated in various ways, whereas the second one has the features of a vivacious, even rough toccata, austere in its expression. This work is rarely performed and recorded (probably only by Klara Kormendi and Claude Helffer). Biret’s recording is excellent – strong, vivacious (2nd movement), and very attractive for listeners. Apart from that, this Sonata sounds better when played in faster tempi, as Biret did.Written in 1948, Piano Sonata No. 2 is the work that marks the end of any sound interdependence, any continuity in a traditional sense. As mentioned in the composer’s remarks, added to the score, there are no parts of primary or secondary importance. The listener must be able to abandon the traditional view of the form of sonata and its internal relations. On the first listening it may seem a bit chaotic, but this impression is false.

Everything is arranged and organised to the smallest detail and the performer is supposed to follow these instructions! Arguably, the ideal interpretation of this Sonata was given only by Pollini (DG 447 431-2) .

Everything in his reading is put in order and so performed. Birefs approach to the work is different and her interpretation is more romantic. Her technique is impressive, especially in the third sherzo-like movement, and in very difficult fourth one, abounding in dynamic and articulation contrasts.Piano Sonata No. 3 was written in years 1957-58. In this work the composer put into practice the theory of so-called open form, therefore the order of movements and the dialogue pattern within each movement are left to the performers’ discretion. For the listener, however, it is unnoticeable , as he usually lacks the opportunity to compare different versions on one record or during a single concert performance; hence in this case it is difficult to talk about interpretation in traditional terms. Biret presents her own view of this music. From technical point of view the recording is very good – the sound is pure and the instrument is well situated in the acoustic panorama. Without any doubts, this CD will be very attractive to all, who are fond of “modem” music.
Diapason d’Or
Nov. 1995, par Pierre Gervasoni
Le Monde de la Musique, No. 194
Dec. 1995, par Patrick Szersnovicz
Les sonates pour piano du jeune Boulez (la 3e fut créée en 1958) compteront-elles dans l’histoire du genre comme celles écrites par Beethoven à la fin de sa vie?Grâce à des interprètes de la trempe de Idil Biret, cela se pourrait bien.

L’autorité dramatique et l’évanescence poétique dont elle dote la 1re Sonate transcendent un discours traditionnellement placé sous l’égide de… Beethoven (ambition formelle) et de Webern (sérialisme pluri-dimensionnel).

La correspondance entre Boulez et le titanesque concepteur de l’Opus III s’élève encore de la 2e Sonate, empreinte d’une grandeur visionnaire et capable d’explorer l’inconnu sans sombrer dans l’expérimental.

Idil Biret en respecte parfaitement la lettre (partition aux folles exigences techniques) et l’esprit (tantôt assurer la lisibilité des voix, tantôt s’en tenir à “l’impression de groupe”) dans une lecture constituant une bonne alternative à celle (pourtant magique) de Pollini.

Servie avec une égale plénitude, la 3e Sonate (toujours a l’état de “work in progress”) permet à Idil Biret de boucler avec maestria une intégrale supérieure en bien des points a celle gravée jadis (1980) par Claude Hellfer.

Contemporaine de la célèbre Sonatine pour flûte et piano, la Première Sonate pour piano (1946) est encore à la croisée des tendances les plus diverses de la première moitié du siècle (l’antagonisme Stravinsky-Schoenberg), mais révèle déjà, en deux mouvements concis, opposés et complémentaires (la durée d’exécution atteint à peine dix minutes), de nombreux aspects de la personnalité de Pierre Boulez: sauts brusques, dynamisme “électrique”, reconstruction de la forme à partir d’un travail sur l’élément (qu’il s’agisse de l’intervalle, de l’intensité, de la durée ou de l’attaque).Œuvre majeure dans la production du jeune Boulez, la grande Deuxième Sonate (1948) demeure stupéfiante par sa maturité; fort de l'”inquitéude rythmique” acquise chez Messiaen, Boulez, bien loin de la poétique de Schoenberg, Berg et Webem, parvient à dépasser le dodécaphonisme classique et s’affirme autant par la référence aux plus glorieux modèle (le découpage plutôt traditionnel en quatre mouvements) que par le souci de dissoudre les formes empruntées. L’opposition entre thématisme et athématisme, la variation ou plutôt la prolifération à partir d’un bref énoncé et l’extrême complexité polyphonique poussent au maximum les possibilités de l’instrument, dans une tradition post-lisztienne exacerbée.

Née à l’époque où les compositeurs s’interrogeaient sur la liberté de l’interprète, la Troisième Sonate (1957), work in progress en perpétuelle gestation, est toujours décrite en cinq mouvements (ou formants}, mais ne comporte que deux “formants” édités, Trope et Constellation-Miroir. La “liberté” donnée à l’interprète ne concerne que l’ordre des parties à jouer ei l’agencement interne du discours à l’intérieur de ces “formants”. On a beaucoup trop insisté sur de telles possibilités de permutation aux évidentes références littéraires (Kafka, Joyce, le Livre de Mallarmé) et point assez sur la spécificité de son écriture, mélange de “points” et de “blocs” procédant par éclats ou privilégiant les résonances.

Energique, virtuose et fidèle à l’esprit de chacune de ces œuvres, Idil Biret en domine les difficultés et fait montre d’un beau sens du geste instrumental autant que d’une subtile intelligence structurelle. Sans faire oublier le fulgurant romantisme de Maurizio Pollini dans la Deuxième Sonate (1976 – DG -, le must), la pianiste turque sait créer des moments poétiques d’une puissance rare (cette “intégrale” du piano seul de Boulez est de plus proposée à un prix défiant toute concurrence).

Tribune de Genève
18 mars 1996, par Daniel Robellaz
Neue Musikzeitung
Dez. 1995/Jan. 1996, R. Schulz
Quelques œuvres dominent la production pianistique de ce temps, parmi lesquelles les trois belles Sonates de Pierre Boulez.Elève de Nadia Boulanger et d’Alfred Cortot, disciple de Wilhelm Kempff, Idil Biret en livre une interpretation pensée, totalement aboutie, eblouissante et poétique de bout en bout. Du contemporain à portée de toutes les bourses, grâce à la firme Naxos. Die türkische Pianistin Idil Biret zählt, völlig verkannt, zu den aufregendsten Interpreten der Gegenwart.Lange schon ist ihr vorbildlicher Einsatz für das Klavierwerk von Boulez (nicht nur für dieses) bekannt.

Auf der CD paaren sich Souveränität und jugendlich rhythmische Frische mit großer angesammelter Erfahrung auf außerordentliche Weise. Boulez’ Musik spricht in allem beredt und klar.

Januar 1996, Ulrich Schreiber
Während der Pultstar Pierre Boulez als Siebziger weltweit gefeiert wird, ist es um den Komponisten still geworden. Es scheint, als sei sein Strukturalismus hinweggespült von der New Age Music, der Neuen Einfachheit weltlicher oder der Devotio moderna sakraler Spielart. Da ist es ein kleines Wunder, daß eine Firma – zudem auf einem Billiglabel – seine drei Klaviersonaten ediert.Es bleibt nicht bei diesem kleinen Wunder, denn die türkische Pianistin Idil Biret bringt die Strukturen in mirakulöser Weise zum Klingen.

Die beiden Sätze der (kurzen) ersten Sonate von 1946 schwingen in einer natürlichen Balance zwischen intervallischem Pointillismus und rhythmischem Schwung, die Webern mit Messiaen verbindet.

In der zweiten Sonate meint man,. Idil Biret spiele im Sinne einer Alternative gegen die legendäre Aufnahme Maurizio Pollinis von 1976 an, die kürzlich von der DG in gelungenem Transfer seinem ersten Recital beim Gelbetikett (447431) angehängt wurde.

Wo Boulez 1948 in Fortsetzung Schumanns für den Kopfsatz ein extrem schnelles Tempo und zum Schluß hin noch eine Steigerung vorschrieb, bleibt die Türkin mehr als eine halbe Minute unter Pollini. Und den Baßtriller, in dem die Anfangssektion kulminiert, serviert sie genüßlich als virtuoses Schaustück.Daß sie den langsamen Satz erheblich schneller als Pollini nimmt, erscheint in ihrer Kontrastdramaturgie logisch, zumal der Klang – über die älteren Aufnahmen von Yvonne Loriot und Claude Helffer weit hinaus – dem Werk sensualistischen Eigenwert verleiht.

Die dritte Sonate gerät im Spiegel-Finale zu einem Triumph für den Komponisten.

Erwähnenswert auch Idil Birets interessantes Brahms-Recital (Naxos 8.553426) mit den zurückhaltend gespielten Walzern op. 39, Kadenzen für Klavierkonzerte von Bach, Mozart und Beethoven sowie einer eigenen Transkription von vier Liedern aus der “Schönen Magellone”.

Pierre Boulez (* 1925)