In the months since his passing, Pierre Boulez’s influence has often been measured by his legacy as a prolific conductor and cultural influencer with considerable political clout. But there is no escaping the music: the clarion call of a brave new world in the years after the war, as well as a sophisticated body of work in complex dialogue with his musical contemporaries and predecessors.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard © Marco Borggreve | DG
Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Marco Borggreve | DG

The Musikfest Berlin presented their own ‘Hommage’ to Boulez with his complete works for piano performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich. A founding member of Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain, Aimard was a frequent collaborator and close friend to the composer; in recent years, Stefanovich has been Aimard’s regular duet partner. Together, they gave a comprehensive biographical portrait of the composer that at nearly three hours long was also a marathon feat of endurance.

As with any biography, we started at the beginning, with the student piece Douze Notations, composed in 1945, bearing the mark of Schoenberg, Debussy and Varese. The Première Sonate was composed just a year later, but Aimard called this Boulez from beginning to end. Irregular, shifting thematic material collides with each other with violent energy, giving the sensation of a rug being pulled from beneath our feet. Boulez started work on the Deuxième Sonate that same year; using Beethoven’s Hammerklavier as a structural model, its strident first theme and stern manner allude to Viennese classicism.

Tamara Stefanovich © Marco Borggreve
Tamara Stefanovich
© Marco Borggreve
In the Troisième Sonate, we find Boulez in full maturity. Composed in the mid-1950s, the work displays the composer’s on-going dialogue between control and freedom. Most of the work is strictly determined, but in one movement, Boulez leaves the performer to piece together their own musical structure. In contrast to John Cage, with whom he had a short-lived friendship, Boulez rejected the idea of absolute ‘chance’, and sets strict rules for the possible courses a performer may take in his piece. Aimard matched this compositional fastidiousness with precision and lucidity.

After this sonata, Boulez would not compose for solo piano until the mid 1990s. Incises shows the composer’s virtuosic command of instrumental colour, using an incessant tremolo as the starting point for a spectrum of sonic possibilities. Stefanovich compared the work to a detuned radio, the background hum of various musical styles all heard at once. She brought a robustness and passion to the work that belied Boulez’s forbidding reputation. The composer’s last work for the instrument, Une page d’éphéméride, a short work for young players, showed the startling effects that he could create with the simplest of means.

Aimard and Stefanovich concluded their portrait with the second book from Structures pour deux pianos. Boulez’s only work for piano duo, completed in the early 1960s, is the composer’s monumental achievement for the instrument, as well as a thrilling act of performance and spontaneous invention. The work’s first ‘chapter’ was a fluid, reactive duet in which Aimard and Stefanovich had a remarkable togetherness, living and (physically) breathing the piece in perfect synchronicity. In the second chapter, Boulez lets the performers create the structure on the fly, communicating with each other with hand gestures. This was exhilarating musical alchemy as well as a fascinating clash of artistic temperaments; Aimard’s cerebral intensity in dialogue with Stefanovich’s raw physicality. At the work’s close, Stefanovich threw herself over the finish line with a savage attack on the lower reaches of her instrument; Aimard nimbly danced over it behind her. This was a magical moment that showed us Boulez’s passion and impish humour.

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