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Order & Chaos in Works by Stockhausen & Beethoven

Stockhausen & Beethoven Marc Ponthus, piano. Bridge 9584 Total Time: 61:40 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****

Pianist Marc Ponthus as carved out a career as an advocate for 20th-Century piano music with traversals of the works of Xenakis and Boulez among his many achievements. In intelligent programming, he invites listeners into these sound worlds putting them in juxtaposition with classic repertoire to allow potential connection to reveal themselves. The concepts of the music he chooses are often laid out well even if the soundworlds might be vastly different. Bridge’s release finds him exploring to of the piano repertoire’s most difficult works, both from a technical/virtuosic perspective, as well as one of stamina. That last element relates as much to the physicality and attention as it does to the ability to work one’s way through the difficult music. The two pieces here have interesting connections that on one level explore elements of motivic development and harmonic constructions that serve as additional signposts in the music. There are also moments of aural deconstruction and recreation of sounds that follow through both these works.

Karheinz Stockhausen’s (1928-2007) Klavierstuck X (1961) is structured around tone clusters that are played as a group, but also which are created through massive glissandi and sustain pedal use. The pianist is even encouraged to wear gloves with cutouts for fingers to aid in these elements. As dissonant as the music is, there are elements of these clusters that do begin to assert themselves as arrival points and repeated gestures adding to the overall unity of the work. There are sudden explosions of sound that then dissipate momentarily before angular writing reintroduces pitch material that outlines a semi-melodic line. The pitch material is constructed around a set of seven elements and there is a further structure that explores varies composition ideas and techniques as well. With all of this in mind, Ponthus’ performance is a stunning one with a sense of shape and inner understanding that comes forth in this recording. The random sense one might first get upon hearing a work like this begins to recede quickly as Ponthus shapes the interior sections well matching articulations and dynamics and helping ot guide the lister through this intense work very well.

Equally daunting is Beethoven’s masterful Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106 (1817-18). From the composer’s third period, the sonata is a moment that reveals Beethoven’s further upsetting of the Classical order. Here he seems to reinvent sonata form itself as well as attempting infusing elements of fugue and modal harmonies. The piece is considered one of the composer’s most demanding works and it it would be Franz Liszt who gave one of the first documented performances of the work. In his detailed and intelligent essay accompanying this release, Ponthus discusses the aural shifts of the work as being an important unifying element. There are the initial explosions of a heroic chordal announcement that then also shifts from verticality to a more horizontal statement of ideas. Against this Beethoven is also working at exploring intervallic and motivic construction against the sonata form. After this virtuosic sonata form movement, we are treated to a brief scherzo that blinks back at the first movement a tad while also further developing subtle harmonic shifts from major to minor. The third movement is another anomaly with a playing time of anywhere from 16 to 25 minutes (Ponthus is at the earlier, faster time, though it does not feel rushed by any means). In this ethereal movement plumbing the depths of the human soul, Beethoven demands a careful traversal through sonata form with its conclusion beginning to hint at the great Romantic piano styles on the horizon. Ponthus’s final bars further enhance the sublime quality of this movement. A brief “Largo” serves as the transition into the final movement where once again Beethoven resorts to exploring different harmonic centers with the additional intensity that is brought to bear in a fugue. The movement is among the composer’s finest contrapuntal achievements.

After the intensely heroic opening, and the further technical displays of the scherzo, it is in the adagio where Beethoven’s heart comes to the forefront. Ponthus manages to draw this highly emotional reflection out well. Listen carefully to the left hand’s rubato against the melodic outlines that are placed against it. Here we further see the debt the Romantics further owed to Beethoven’s piano writing. The full exploration of the keyboard also is aided here by important pedaling and shaping of phrases. (The sonata is one of the few where Beethoven includes such markings.) Ponthus’ analysis of the work in his ample notes also helps point out his aesthetic and focused research that informs his playing. It makes for good food for thought as one sits back to listen to how he applies these ideas in his performance.

For comparison, I have had two favorite, if quite different views, of this work. One is from the classic Wilhelm Kempff set on Deutsche Grammophon. Kempff brings out the sonata’s architectural grandeur and its intelligent construction in a performance that remains one of the finest on disc. On the other side is Barry Douglas’s second ever recording after rising to attention from the Van Cliburn Competition in the mid-1980s. His performance is nearly 10 minutes longer than either Kempff or Ponthus. In Ponthus’ case, we receive a reading that falls closer to Kempff with an informed interior understanding that does not create a clinical Gould-like reading but one that pulls together the theoretical and compositional techniques and approaches into an intelligent performance that still adds an appropriate level of emotional expression.

With an equally resonant and responsive Steinway at his disposal, Ponthus’ performances are further enhanced. The sound picture is captured beautifully here bringing important clarity in the Stockhausen but also allowing for the more diffuse sustains to evaporate into the ether. The Beethoven is give an equally fine balance sonically here and one can hear all the detail Ponthus references in text on excellent display on the keyboard as well.

Bridge’s release is a stellar one with excellent notes and sound helping to fully support a performance that listeners will likely return to repeatedly. It is a release not to be missed.


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