A Weekend with Pierre Boulez…and Debussy, Duckworth, Beethoven, and Paavali Jumppanen, Pianist

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Pierre Boulez in 1980. Photo Don Hunstein/Columbia Records.

Pierre Boulez in 1980. Photo Don Hunstein/Columbia Records.

Park Avenue Armory
Saturday, October 7, 2017

Pierre Boulez, Répons
Ensemble Intercontemporain
Matthias Pintscher, conductor

When I approach a review, I usually try to objectify it in some way, especially if it’s about familiar music, not only in recognition of the the fact that I’m writing for a public readership, but also in recognition of the discrete nature of a work of art as an entity created by an individual working under a specific set of historical circumstances, even if it dates from two months ago. Boulez’s Répons is very much rooted in such a situation in 1981, with its connection to the history of electronic music—then still fairly young—and the foundation of IRCAM, an event which gave electronic music formal institutional support in Europe. However, my personal response to hearing it at the Park Avenue Armory was especially strong, and in this review I will stay with that.

It is important to note that Répons hasn’t been performed in New York or anywhere in the United States in some fifteen years. The audience surrounded a small central orchestra—all surrounded by six soloists and loudspeakers for the electronic component. My history with the Armory goes back to childhood, as a singularly unpromising member of the Knickerbocker Greys and, in the 1990s, as an exhibitor at various art fairs in the drill hall. It is extremely gratifying to see the splendid Tiffany rooms of the building restored to their former glory and as a major center for the arts. Where else in New York could a work like Répons be so comfortably accommodated, unless perhaps a church?

The work lasts about 40-45 minutes, and we heard it twice, before and after the intermission, changing seats to the opposite side of where we sat in the first half. Therefore I first heard Répons from the first row near the front of the winds, then from the rear of the strings. I had a stronger impression the first time, since—for whatever reason—I could localize the soloists more clearly and the winds tended to play more dynamic, animated figures. In one movement, the strings play chords which act as suspension, and I’m not sure I heard this in proper balance with the winds after the break. The soloists also blended together with the output of the speakers and the orchestra as a whole. In absolute terms—and in those of the composer—there was nothing wrong with this, and perhaps that effect is preferable. I may have been tired at that point or taken with the romance of a first hearing…This is all pure subjectivity.

The title, Répons, refers to the responsive choirs of medieval music, and this suggests a historical perspective in the work. After digesting the concert I thought of Boulez’s innovative gesture in writing this piece for his new foundation in a retrospective light. I thought of Boulez as a latter-day J. S. Bach, collecting forms, structures, and motifs in music, going back to some Bach himself worked with and others of later origin, Beethoven and Debussy most immediately coming to mind, weaving the whole tradition of western art music into an intertextual fabric of many layers. 1 At its Donaueschingen premiere, the piece lasted some ten minutes, but in Boulez’s successive revisions which continued on until 1985, it grew to its present length, comparable to, say, Brahms’ First or Second Symphony. In its final state Répons consists of eight movements and a coda. It is significant that the Armory program avoided enumerating these sectional divisions. In performance one flowed into the next without pause.

I had not heard the piece before, and, because of the spatial element, I did not wish to listen to Boulez’s stereo recording in advance, so the work was new to me. The orchestra plays by itself at the beginning. Listening for familiar elements to grasp on to, I noted what I identified as a first subject and a second subject, but that was all I could find as elements of classical form. Features of these non-themes—e.g. runs of contiguous notes and narrow jumps, as well as repeated chords—however, kept recurring throughout the piece, which was, in its way, quite simple, but also extremely complex at the same time. One could say that Répons is all about movement, forward movement, as well as resistance: I noticed little relaxation in the music until the very end, when it fades out with haunting delicacy.

There was a Beethovenian quality to the way Boulez developed these motifs. He seemed to fuse the forward thrust of Beethoven’s Seventh with the darkness of his Fifth. Without sonata form or rondo and the classical harmonic narrative, the motifs took on an abstract quality, as if Schoenberg’s serial technique, which Boulez did in fact employ, had finally broken entirely free of any dependence on classical forms. Schoenberg himself never achieved that, but Boulez did, and this makes Répons a powerful lesson in how to listen, as I learned in hearing Debussy and Beethoven the very next day. The medium for this transformation of classical style was for Boulez, so I think, the great Debussy himself, who fused pure musical gesture, reference, and narrative in his late Preludes and an even more intensely concentrated dialogue of motif and invention in his Etudes, in which conventional finger exercises grow into all-encompassing fantasies. Boulez was more interested in the formal deconstruction implied by the Etudes than their atmospheric flights of imagination. In Répons he rigorously holds his listeners to basic musical shapes, however expanded by the intervention of the soloists and the often dreamlike electronic expansions of the live players. In his deluge of notes, Boulez subtly evokes not only Bach, Handel, Beethoven, and Debussy, but Brahms as well: somewhere the spirit of the Fourth Symphony entered the musical space, not to mention Schoenberg and Webern—all among Boulez’s favorites as a conductor.

I heard Répons in the most traditional way, as a concerto grosso. Even the central location of the audience recalled the baroque and classical habit of noble connoisseurs to wander amidst the players during a performance. These usually began with a statement by the entire group before venturing into riffs by soloists and individual groups of winds or strings. Handel seemed the starting point for the later excursions into other references. This was for me a first hearing, and there is surely much I have missed.

The performance, by Boulez’s own Ensemble Intercontemporain under Matthias Pintscher, with Andrew Gerzso, Glibert Nouno, and Jérémie Henrot of IRCAM in charge of the live computer generations, was as authentic as we can hope for. The winds played with Boulez’s characteristic robust tone and clearly etched articulation. The strings were most expressive, and the soloists entirely in control of their virtuosic parts. If Boulez himself could hear it, I think he would have been overjoyed by Pintscher’s energy and precision, the musicians’ respect of his performance practice, and the enthusiasm of the audience. It was a true occasion for us New Yorkers


Paavali Jumppanen

Paavali Jumppanen

The Frick Collection
Sunday, October 8, 2017
Paavali Jumppanen, piano

Debussy: Études, Books I & II
Duckworth: Selections from The Time Curve Preludes: Book I, Nos. I, II, III, IV, VII
Beethoven: Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”)

The next day another memorable event took place at the Frick Collection, pianist Paavali Jumppanen’s recital at the Frick Collection. My pair of ears, in any case, was still under the spell of Boulez, and this made me all the keener a listener. (As I suggested above, Répons is an education in itself, for the mind as well as the ears. Hearing it can transform how one listens, and how one understands what one hears.) Mr. Jumppanen first played at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 2000 under the aegis of Young Concert Artists. (He was therefore of the same vintage as Viviane Hagner and Mason Bates.) In his considerable wisdom Scott Nickrenz, the Abrams Curator of Music at the Gardner (who only just retired this summer) invited him back so frequently that he seemed something like a house pianist, having played there more often than even Jeremy Denk. Jumppanen, whose main residence is still in Finland, where he runs two music festivals, the PianoEspoo Festival in Helsinki and Kiehu Music, a multi-disciplinary arts festival in Western Lapland, is now moving the center of his musical activities in the Western Hemisphere to New York. As you will learn if you listen to the podcast of my interview with him, he has also had residencies at Bucknell University, where he came to know the composer William Duckworth, whose engaging music will appear on this program, and at Harvard, which he discusses at some length in the interview. This is by no means the first time Jumppanen has played in New York, but it marks a significant shift in the course of his career. Boston’s loss is New York’s gain.

And a significant gain it is, judging by this magnificent recital. He began with Debussy’s Études, both books, played in order as a unit. The composer didn’t plan on this manner of presentation any more than he did for his Préludes, but our contemporary trend of playing these collections of short works as a whole is most welcome, given the fact that the books do have a particular structure and direction, even, in the case of the Préludes, a narrative of a subtle Mallarméan sort. Since Debussy’s short pieces, especially the Études, play such an significant role in Boulez’s long work, hearing them the day after had a seamless quality to it. In each piece Debussy dutifully begins with the pianistic problem at hand—Pour les “cinq doigts”—d’après Monsieur Czerny, Pour les tierces, etc., etc.—reducing thematic integrity (i.e. melody) to figurations determined by the needs of the pianist’s hand. Boulez, in reducing his thematic units to specific note patterns resembling Debussy’s, was drawing on these very pieces. They may well be the most important intertext in that richly referential work. In any case, Mr. Jumppanen, playing an exceptionally warm, generous, and rich-toned Steinway, kept our attention focused on Debussy’s exercise-like, fragmentary note-patterns. In his understanding of the Études, he achieved a perfect balance between the fragmentary and the unified in the rhetoric Debussy invented for these pieces. The unity manifests itself as a kind of narrative, which leads the finger-work into a dramatic, dream-like fantasy-state. Through this process, Debussy confronts us with one surprise after another, and Mr. Jumppanen was on top of every one of these magic tricks. If there is any one feature I’d invoke to characterize Paavali Jumppanen’s playing, it is his sense of surprise, of making the most of each composer’s unexpected turns. This applied as much to Beethoven as to Debussy. Each composer had his own personal sense of the coup de théatre. This command of the unexpected proved to be Jumppanen’s key to the unified structure of Book I and Book II and of the whole, which was in essence dramatic. Along the way, his truly virtuosic technique proved itself equal to any of Debussy’s digital tortures, his dynamic range was vast, and his tone both rich and clear. His articulation was always crisp and clean, with the use of the pedal confined to moments where it was really necessary. I cannot imagine a more penetrating, subtle, and beautiful traversal of Debussy’s final statement for the piano.

When Mr. Jumppanen described William Duckworth as the founder of “post-minimalism,” I scratched my head a bit, but on hearing these very appealing selections from his long Time Curve Preludes, one might reduce the movement simply to “minimalism without boredom” or “minimalism without depression.” For there is indeed something about the music of some minimalists that drags us down. One should not feel tired after listening to a thirty-minute piece—or a three-hour piece, for that matter. (For more about Duckworth, Paavali’s most recent blog post would be the place to start.) Although the composer intended the Time Curve Preludes to played as a whole, Book I and Book II each lasting around 34 minutes, Jumppanen took the liberty of playing selections, in order to fit it into a two-hour concert: Book I (1978), Preludes I-IV and VII. In each of these Duckworth prescribed weights to be placed on certain keys to create a resonance, which endures throughout the piece, but which is most easily audible after the last note dies out. For my part I found these little pieces—some wistful, some witty, some Romantic—so absorbing that I forgot to listen for the ghost of sound at the end in some cases. (Mr. Jumppanen had the piano’s lid lowered to promote the resonance.) I found myself taking a warm liking to the late Mr. Duckworth’s music, entirely in sympathy with the pianist’s enthusiasm. You can hear and watch  him play the Preludes in their entirety on YouTube: Book I and Book II.

The concentration on groups of notes, on pianistic figurations, continued in Mr. Jumppanen’s approach to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, in F Minor, Op. 57 (1806). This was by far the most original  reading of the old warhorse I have heard, and he made it seem entirely fresh, making us hang on every turn in Beethoven’s thought, as the sonata unfolded. Most pianists work towards playing the “Appassionata,” as grand and dramatic as it may be, as a smooth, coherent example of the classical sonata, but Jumppanen, with the help of M. Debussy—and in my case the uninvited guest, M. Boulez—focused on the shifts and surprises of Beethoven’s exposition. For example, the heroic second subject of the first movement first appears with the lower note of the octave below middle C. Then he repeats it an octave higher. Jumppanen made something disorienting and fragmenting out of this simple leap of an octave, which can also be made to sound continuous and flowing. The accompanying figurations in the left hand—the repeated notes and broken chords—took on a life of their own, so that we heard these abstract notes as counterpoint to the main theme rather than as merely harmonic support. This added to the complexity of the textures and made further demands on our concentration, adding to the intensity of the experience. The emotive aspect of Jumppanen’s playing was intense in itself and exposed a frightening, Hoffmannesque quality in the music, transporting us to the Brocken itself. (Beethoven cannot have known Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht, since Faust Part I was not published until two years after he wrote the sonata.) The pianist brought back all of the challenging aspects of the work, which would have been most disturbing, when it was new, as the critic of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung expressed it, writing: “In the first movement of this sonata [Beethoven] has let loose many evil spirits, as are already familiar from other grand sonatas of his.”2 In the slow movement, there is a classicizing respite from the nihilistic agitation of the first movement, but this also brings in intellect, as well as Winckelmannian balance and peace. There is a good deal of complexity in Beethoven’s working-out of the variations, and Jumppanen showed himself fully aware of this. Beethoven didn’t allow the variations to reach their due repose in a coda or even a cadence. Before that can happen, the music transforms itself into a raging finale. The transition is a subtle transformation, a special challenge to the executant, and Jumppanen managed it to perfection. His was a challenging renewal of an extremely familiar classic, and he prevented his audience from taking anything for granted in it. Even when compared to Boulez at the Armory, this was indeed an important concert.

  1. One person in my group heard a gamelan, but it must have been certain registers of the cimbalom, or a slip of the tongue. Or can the gamelan be considered a western—or at least a universal—instrument, since it has been adopted so enthusiastically by some European and American composers?
  2. quoted by Jan Swafford in Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, New York, 2014, p. 412.
About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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