Avant-Garde Apocrypha: Steven Vanhauwaert on Barraqué’s Piano Sonata and why serialism still matters

Stephen Vanhauwaert at the keyboard. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Hans von Bülow once famously remarked that Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas were respectively the Old and New Testaments of the pianistic repertoire. It could be said, therefore, that the monumental Piano Sonata by French composer Jean Barraqué (1928 — 1973) is an apocryphal text in that Bülowian biblical canon; a searing philippic fulminating against a world devastated by war and teetering over the abyss of nuclear annihilation.

Nearly 70 years after its composition the work remains a forbidding peak looming over the winding, jagged mountain range of the 20th century piano. Nevertheless, it is a vibrant score which in performance can sound on the verge of manifesting itself physically before the listener in spontaneously combustive apotheosis, with only stray glittering cinders left drifting in its wake.

Fusing together the polyphony of Bach, the late Beethovenian impulse to transcend the physical boundaries of music-making, and the composer’s own rigorous serial idiom, the Barraqué Piano Sonata has been a challenge which few pianists have accepted. But this Saturday night pianist Steven Vanhauwaert will meet the score head-on, bringing it to life for the first time in Southern California in nearly 20 years.

The sonata will be the centerpiece in a daring Jacaranda Music program comprising of works by Barraqué’s fellow pupil Iannis Xenakis as well as their teacher Olivier Messiaen.

Vanhauwaert related over a phone interview last week the many challenges the score poses to the performer, its expressive power, and why serial music is still important.

Néstor Castiglione: It is impossible to ignore the references to music past that the very title of this Barraqué work evokes. But do you feel that this sonata fits into the classical tradition? Or did the composer fashion an utterance that was entirely new in the pianistic literature?

Steven Vanhauwaert: One hears a lot of Bach and Beethoven in Barraqué’s Piano Sonata. I find a lot of similarities here, for example, with the late Beethoven sonatas in various ways, mostly in how both composers focus on structure. With Beethoven one can sometimes miss that as most listeners focus on how pleasant his music can be to listen to. But analyzing it one finds an enormous amount of things going on. Barraqué does the same thing. The idea of transformation where all these little motifs are turned later into new ideas. Structure is the guiding principle of his work. But where there is a difference from late Beethoven is how transformations there lead to hope, with humanity ascending. With Barraqué there is transformative catharsis, but it is more of a dissolution rather than a revolution of hope. What is remarkable is that the score demands no extended techniques for performance. One plays the piano with the fingers, using the pedal. Not even touching the strings. It is traditionally written for the instrument, as if he just wanted the pure sound of the piano. In that sense the score looks very much like a Beethoven sonata.

NC: How long have you lived with this score?

SV: I’ve known about this work since I was a teenager, but did not come to be intimately familiar with it back then. Coming to know the score and recordings more closely over the years, I have fallen in love with the mysterious air of this work. Awhile ago I was talking to Patrick Scott [Artistic and Executive Director of Jacaranda Music] and told him that if he ever wanted to program Barraqué’s Piano Sonata to please let me do so. Because nobody ever really plays it since it is almost impossible to perform and you need an organizer who is invested in making this kind of repertoire more widely available. Patrick Scott is a genius in doing that and ours is a very good collaboration. This will be my first time performing it.

NC: On top of the formidable demands this score makes on the pianist, there are also the numerous challenges presented by the published scores, with the first edition being notorious for its errors. How have you grappled with this?

SV: I’m using the Aldo Bruzzichelli score from 1966, which is the original edition. I don’t think [Barraqué] himself edited any other editions. [Australian pianist Roger] Woodward played it for him, making suggestions which the composer liked and permitted to be incorporated into his recording and performances. But Barraqué is also on the record about being equally impressed by the recordings of Yvonne Loriod and Claude Helffer. All three recordings are very different from each other not just in conception, but in tempo, textural details, and so on. It seems to me that to a degree Barraqué wanted to keep interpretation of his Piano Sonata a little open. The composer had about 200 pages of notes, retouchings, and errata for the score which he could have had published. But he intentionally destroyed them. So he must have been happy enough with what was published that he did not feel the need to revise the piece.

NC: Serial and atonal music has been much denigrated over the past 30 years by musicians and audiences alike. But Saturday’s Jacaranda program is made up entirely of composers who worked in that idiom and had very vital things to express to their audience. But do you believe that this music can move people emotionally? Can it endure the passing of time?

SV: Whether this music is as potent as, say, Beethoven or Bach, well, we may have to wait another century to find out. There is definitely something to be said that serial music is not as immediately accessible as minimalism. There has to be an effort on the part of the audience to hear it out and discern the music’s connections to the past. But one cannot say that serial music is somehow not valid or is incapable of expression. If you hear the works of Webern, Berg, Schoenberg, Boulez, and so on one finds that [their idioms] can be very expressive. Sometimes artists need certain restraints. Within those parameters one can create something expressive, vital, and paradoxically also demonstrating freedom. In Beethoven, for example, he set his boundaries of expression within the parameters of sonata form. But he also pushed that form to its limits and nearly destroyed it. To say something while working through and sometimes breaking a set of rules is sometimes very necessary for an artist.

Jacaranda Music will present Steven Vanhauwaert’s performance of Barraqué’s Piano Sonata this Saturday, March 17 at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica. The program will also include Messiaen’s Quatre Études de rythme and Xenakis’ Psappha. Concert begins at 8:00 p.m. and will be preceded by a pre-concert talk by Vanhauwaert at 7:00 p.m. General admission tickets are $45, students are $20. To obtain tickets and more information please click on this link or call (213)483 — 0216.

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