Neglected French composer Jean Barraqué (1928–73) is often referred to as the Romantic of post-war serialism. Like Pierre Boulez, he studied with Messiaen in Paris before embracing twelve-tone techniques, though, unlike his audacious and far more successful classmate, he was never willing to sever his links to the tradition of Romantic music which had inspired him to become a composer in the first place. This recital, given during the opening weekend of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, offered a rare opportunity to hear his monumental Piano Sonata performed by one of the composer’s foremost champions, the pianist Nicolas Hodges.

Nicolas Hodges © Marco Borggreve
Nicolas Hodges
© Marco Borggreve

The explosive opening of the sonata packed quite a punch, though Hodges’ decision to plunge headlong into it whilst some of the audience were still applauding seemed to weaken, rather than intensify, its impact. This aside, his reading was one of tremendous insight and attention to detail. His sensitive approach brought clarity to the various interlocking strands of material which together made up a dense, knotted polyphony, and he succeeded not just in scaling the work’s significant technical demands but also in finding the latent lyricism in amongst its many violent outbursts. Whilst for many the sonata has come to epitomise the complexity of the serialism of the late 1950s, it also contains passages of a simplicity which would be quite impossible within the refined languages of Boulez or Stockhausen. These often disconcerting events, like the thunderous succession of low tremolos which interrupt the slow unfolding of the work’s second half or the gaping silences which are shot through the entire score (a common feature of all Barraqué’s music), were all vividly and convincingly delivered. Equally impressive was the work’s conclusion its peculiarly hesitant and indecisive mood being perfectly captured.

At his untimely death at the age of just 45 in 1973, Barraqué left a small body of just six published works; almost nothing was known about the kind of music his had been writing before the Piano Sonata. This all changed a few years ago with the discovery of a substantial body of music dating back to the 40s, including several piano pieces. Hodges, who had been entrusted to give the piano works their overdue première in Strasbourg just over a year ago, prefaced this performance of the sonata with a selection of them.

Intermezzo (1949), a work written before Barraqué’s turn towards strict serialism, contained the familiar pregnant silences which characterise the mature music. Unlike the sonata, however, here was music which displayed a confidence in form and gesture: a strong sense of closure being achieved at the end as the music opened out to either extreme of the keyboard. In the first of the Deux morceaux (1949) the audience were subject to an outburst of energy as violent as anything in Barraqué’s mature work, the incendiary cascades eventually collapsing inwards towards a single central sonority at the work’s emphatic conclusion.

This concert offered a fascinating insight into the formation of one of the most individual voices of the post-war avant-garde, and it is hard to imagine a more persuasive advocacy than that which was displayed here.