2015 marks the 90th anniversary of Pierre Boulez. The French composer-conductor-essayist, a musician with a capital M, is up for a big year. Among many laurels to come is a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award which he receives on February 7th. Even more importantly, his music will be heard in many top arenas and Boulez enthusiasts all around the world can experience the sounds of “organized delirium” in their nearby venues. Check out Ensemble Intercontemporain’s Pli selon Pli , Sydney Symphony’s Rituel, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s complete Boulez piano music tour with Tamara Stefanovich, to name but a handful!
I had the pleasure of working with Boulez a bit over ten years ago in preparation for the recording of his three piano sonatas. Approaching the first face-to-face session with him at Cité de la Musique I was all but terrified. I had heard about his cool decisiveness, non-tolerance for haphazardness, let alone his famous remarks damning such institutions as opera and Schönberg. The possibility of sparking such responses added to the fear already pretty seriously established by the infamous score of the Second Sonata. My worries were washed away upon meeting the disarmingly courteous and down-to-earth man! Boulez began by expressing his appreciation for my having learned such a difficult work and continued by remarking that he himself had only managed to play the slow movement. The session continued with Boulez upholding a pleasant but concentrated atmosphere and during the hour and a half we spent together he would make only the kind of remarks and wishes that had a specific point, a most helpful but surprisingly unusual disposition at such a sessions. When I in turn would ask a question, he answered it clearly and informatively.
A mere bagatelle in the meeting, but an interesting one, occurred when I asked Boulez about certain inconsistencies in the score, rhythms that don’t add up and the famous octave in the slow movement. He studied each one almost as if he were looking the score for the first time making weighed decisions based on how each case revealed itself on that particular moment. Neither blaming the edition, nor questioning my abilities to understand the complicated polyrhythms of the four-part writing, but, instead, simply reading the score and figuring out what’s wrong.
As I was in the process of learning all three of his sonatas the first session was followed by a few more. I left each one with bullet-proof data and good advice, but perhaps more importantly, I was given a precious opportunity to come away with a sense of Boulez’s personality as a thoroughly composed perfect gentleman, who in some mysterious way carries a highly intriguing aura of elegance–just as his music! I might have learned his sonatas even without the “composer boot-camp” but having experienced that laden playing the pieces with a special meaning; a mixture of pride and humility, and a glimpse of stylistic understanding.
This year, the B-90, will be a big one for me too! Currently on my desk there are two new Boulez recordings about to be released. The first, recoded in August at Emil Berliner Studios in Berlin, is my second Direct-to-Disc recording with Berliner Meister Schallplatten, the repertoire including the Troisième Sonate. Another one, also recorded last summer, is an album with American flutist Paula Robison, that one including the Sonatine. The release on Pergola Records will take place in the spring. We’re currently editing that one so the year (appropriately) begins with us literally getting our hands dirty on early Boulez’s wild (flute-piano) tandem virtuosity. And last but not least, PianoEspoo festival will feature Boulez’s music in Espoo and Helsinki this coming October.
What about the graffiti then? Its genesis began probably in spring 2000 when I was learning the Second Sonata and my bridge mates visited me in Basel for a long weekend of intense play. The music we listened during playing varied from Van Halen to Bach to Boulez, and at one point one of the inspired players came up with a slogan that has since become an idiom among private circles. 2015 marks a perfect time to make it public: