Barraqué: Sonate pour piano (ECM New Series 1621)


Jean Barraqué
Sonate pour piano

Herbert Henck piano
Recorded July 1996, Festburgkirsche, Frankfurt
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The legacy of French composer Jean Barraqué (1928-1973) has at last been given its due berth. Pianist Herbert Henck, never one to bow out from a challenge, went through considerable efforts to annotate a viable score (a task that amounted to no less than 125 handwritten pages) from which he could extract this notoriously elusive piece. As this fine disc clearly attests, these efforts have paid off tremendously. The reputation of Barraqué’s Sonate pour Piano would seem to precede any listener’s (or performer’s) familiarity with its sounds. Composed between 1950 and 1952, it plots the multivalent trajectories of the composer’s foundational Serialism into deeper and more formidable territories. Despite the redactions to which it is often confined—namely, Pierre Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata and Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier”—any kinship therein is immediately overcast by the roiling clouds of the work’s uniquely idiosyncratic climate. Thus is his allegiance to twelve-tone rows selectively severed in favor of an approach that is at once enigmatically liminal and highly integrative, as much about erasure as it is about inscription.

The nearly 50-minute work, in two movements, finds its voice in a Pleiadean cluster, as if one were poking a pin into the balloon of the universe and notating everything that came spilling out. Through this porous barrage of galaxies, binary stars, and black holes, the music can only go where gravity bids it to go. Pianistic lows grumble with the weight of time’s inevitable progression, while highs sparkle like meteorites hitting an invisible atmosphere. What seems at first a perplexing experiment slowly fractures into its own auditory urtext. The sonata’s structure is ever unstable, discomforting, and discontented. In it, we see ourselves stripped of age and ideological concern, dropped headlong into a phantom of aberration. We encounter an increasing number of silences, which only coalesce with time into the piece’s final vacuity.

This is, presumably, not music that you will ever find humming to yourself. Rather, its melodies burrow deep into the subconscious, if not spring from it directly, lodging themselves where no other sound dares follow. Henck negotiates the technical minutiae of this piece with his usual erratic grace. He draws out individual notes with crisp punctuation, such that each emerges as a magnetic node to which the drive of surrounding tones becomes attracted. Every gesture seems to blow harder onto embers that would much rather fade, coaxing as much glow as can be had before ashes are all that is left.