Monday, 26 May 2008

Pierre Boulez - Douze Notations pour Piano

Pierre Boulez's Notations are nowadays more commented in its orchestral form rather than in the original piano version. However, I still enjoy the original version very much. Boulez was only 20 years-old when he composed them, and they're probably his first published composition. There is much more in the work of Boulez than its first composition, of course. But for now I'll focus on his first period, that of atonal post-Webernian style. Even though the musical language is not of particular innovation for the era, I nonetheless think it is a very amusing work to listen to -- perhaps a good introduction to his magnificent second piano sonata. Light, but, at the same time, already expressing Boulez's wonderful sensitivity for music.

After a very suave beginning, the second notation unleashes power and vigor. "Très vif", as it is notated, is shown below (entire score available here):




As performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (available here):




Aimard plays it under twenty seconds, but that doesn't mean it is simple. The twelve tone cluster, in particular, is hard to play accurately at such velocity, and Aimard's interpretation is the best I know. I only fail to distinguish the A flat on the left hand at the 6th bar (when it coincides with the right hand), but the overall brilliance and clarity of the recording are great, as is his technique.

The notations are fairly heterogeneous is form. In the tenth, "Mécanique et très sec", Boulez explicitly states that it should be played "absolument sans nuances". I love the mechanical sound of it:






The rhythm is generally simple (something that would change in his later works), but this does not diminish its the musical quality. On the extreme we have the sixth notation, composed only of sixteenth notes. Here Boulez allows two different intensity schemes:




Aimard chooses the first, from pp to ff and back to ff:




This is probably the hardest notation to play, for even though the rhythm is trivial, the complexity of the melodies certainly compensates for it.

However, the Notations for piano are Boulez's first work, and the grandeur of this composer (who, by the way, is an accomplished conductor as well) can only be fully enjoyed in his later works. Fortunately (for me at least, since I enjoy the Notations so much), Boulez decided to arrange his Notations to orchestral form. Unfortunately, he is taking far longer than expected to complete the entire transcription, but some parts are available already. One of them is the second notation shown above, which was greatly expanded to take advantage of a full orchestra (notations one through four also available here by the Wiener Philharmoniker):




The orchestral pieces show a fully matured musical language and wonderful orchestration abilities. Unfortunately I do not have its score, but I definitely recommend listening to all of them. Or even better: attend a performance of Boulez conducting them! I was lucky enough to attend his concert in the Concertgebouw (Amsterdam) a few months ago, where he conducted the orchestrations of the first four notations. Unforgettable!

4 comments:

  1. excellent analysis

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very good comments. I think that the Notations became more or less standard repertoire for pianists. I love to perform them, and although they are not put on every recital program by pianists, they do get played. Orchestral version is, in my opinion a different work, but of course there is a strong resemblance with the original 1945 version.
    You can listen to all of them for free on my website: www.ukrainianpianist.com . Click "watch" and I hope you can enjoy the videos. Each notation is represented by different filming techniques.
    Illya Filshtinskiy

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very good comments. I think that the Notations became more or less standard repertoire for pianists. I love to perform them, and although they are not put on every recital program by pianists, they do get played. Orchestral version is, in my opinion a different work, but of course there is a strong resemblance with the original 1945 version.
    You can listen to all of them for free on my website: www.ukrainianpianist.com . Click "watch" and I hope you can enjoy the videos. Each notation is represented by different filming techniques.
    Illya Filshtinskiy

    ReplyDelete
  4. Nice videos, I like the concept. And I agree with you that the orchestral version should be seen as a different work.

    ReplyDelete