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Dip Your Ears, No. 30a (Boulez, Piano Sonatas)

available at AmazonP.Boulez, Piano Sonatas,
DG 20-21

Beautiful? Nay. Unless you have a mildly strange sense of what beauty is. Is it the wispy, slow second movement Lent of Sonata No. 2? Or the quirky, sprightly, darkly bubbling trios of the third movement's scherzo (Modéré, presque vif) from the same work? Music like Boulez's invariably asks the question: "Do I really like it—and if so, why?" For a musicologist, the answer might be easier to find, explained in terms of structure, novel elements of the score, the synthesis of styles reminiscent of both Messiaen and Schoenberg, who had a strong influence on the young Boulez. (The former was a teacher of his, the latter influenced him through "disciple" René Leibovitz, also one of Boulez's teachers.)

For less erudite or less theoretically inclined ears, what remains is a jumble of sound, an intellectual challenge. And yet, I cannot but enjoy the music utterly. Of course, the enjoyment is not quite the same as when listening to a middle Beethoven sonata, or even a late one, but anyone who knows what it takes to learn to like LvB's op. 92 string quartet, a work as austere as Boulez's sonatas are (seemingly) erratic, is on his way to find entertainment, solace, pleasure in these keyboard paintings. If looking at Barnett Newman's work can fill you with an inexplicable sense of awe (what a gorgeous white—look at the evocative power of the red stripe down the middle!)—and it does, to me—you will likely enjoy these works, so engagingly and convincingly told by Boulez's hand-picked pianist Paavali Jumppanen. I remember listening to Debussy preludes for the first couple of times with similar enjoyable incomprehension. Not the music counted then, but the faintly grasped, hardly understood pictures it evoked.

If this does not sound like a ringing endorsement, it's because this music—quite obviously—is not for everyone. But those seeking an expansion of both their musical and mental horizon via Boulez ought to treat themselves.