IN: Reviews

Burrowed Boulez and Alfresco Bartók


Paavali Jumppanen (file photo)

Frequenter of the Sunday matinées at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Paavali Jumppanen yesterday played Debussy, Bartók, and Boulez before a smallish crowd of must-be 20th-Century music enthusiasts if not also fans of the Finnish pianist.

This might already be tops for the year when we were only halfway-through. Jumppanen’s program, his presence, and his performance exceeded not just everyday kinds of musical outings, but easily went beyond those formidable few in Boston that come to pass in this star-studded stop.

At 38, this still-young keyboard whiz  has grown remarkably over the years that I have been hearing him at the Gardner. “20th Century Classics,” as the unusually spiffy three-concert brochure has it—all by those composers above-named—began last week and will conclude on March 5th. So, whether it is a triple threat or triple treat, it deserves laud and honor for adventurous programming enriched with meaning.

Claude Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite is music well-known to many. Doctor Gradus and Parnassum totally transcended the composer’s etudinous reference. Uncommon beauty flowed from these Finnish fingers with keyed-in joyousness to savor. The usually slow moving Jimbo’s Lullaby glowed with echoing jolliness, a suspenseful episode, and a lovingly nodding off before sleep. For Serenade for the Doll, Jumppanen began showing the doll as stationary and then as song abounding in colorful, nuanced imagery.

Snow is Dancing came with keen pedaling and accenting. The flute in The Little Shepherd proved central to Jumppanen’s pastoral concept; he imbued that melody with song beyond all expectations, never mind performances given by kids, I mean all the way through to artists. Why did Scott Joplin come to mind when listening to Jumppanen’s playing of Golliwogg’s Cakewalk. His take sounded so refined tonally, while ever so full of rhythmic ingenuities.

No surprise to learn that upon hearing this pianist, that Pierre Boulez asked him to record his own Troisième Sonate pour Piano. Following Jumppanen’s traversal, one listener remarked, “That’s not an easy piece to play, is it.” Much intellectual commentary is usual fare for this mathematically driven work, which burrows through labyrinthine structures. What is the work’s meaning is most often asked.

Jumppanen informed us that Boulez demanded half-lid to allow quiet resonances to be heard with greater persistence and clarity. And so noises, coughs, folding paper, shuffling, even talking if you can believe it—all perfectly fine for John Cage—would be anathema to Boulez. Profound devotion to every keyboard stroke, pedal action, sympathetic vibrations (those resonances) from Jumppanen summoned supreme attention. Off to another universe we were taken. Meaning?  A galaxy of wonder: that is what Jumppann made of Boulez.

And with Im Freien or Outdoors Suite by Béla Bartók an already magnificent afternoon would be further elevated. Too many pianists’ way with Bartók especially in this work, glorifies the maniacal, occludes light, and focuses on ferocity.  How rewarding that Jumppanen went another route. The opening to Drums and Pipes exploded in striking fashion with vitalized bass percussion. Barcarolla magnificently murmured. The Musettes did take to adventurous, scary trills—never evil ones. And when terror struck, it somehow infiltrated abiding security verging on joy.

Jumppanen turned Night’s Music into a forest of creatures talking sometimes singing in Hungarian-Romanian dialects, as the persisting ostinato channeled nocturnal mysteries. With electrically charged hands, feet accentuating pedals and floor, Paavali Jumppanen thrilled in the finale, The Chase.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.  He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Bravo to David Patterson’s review. I heard both Sunday concerts of Mr. Jumppanen and look forward to the third (with the excellent addition of the violinist Corey Cerovsek. Is Mr. Jumppanen the only pianist in the world to play the three Boulez sonatas? I do own his recordings and he obviously is the direct line from working them with Mr.Boulez. Yes, they are not only difficult to play, but also to listen to- hearing the resonances with the half lid was part of the pleasure, one of the few times one sees the lid on the piano in Calderwood Hall. An interesting choice to program The Children’s Corner with the Boulez. One of Debussy’s most charming and descriptive works and Mr. Patterson well described the care given to each piece. I always look forward in Golliwog’s Cakewalk to the jab at Tristan, even though Debussy eventually recognized the German master. Yes, in the Im Freien suite, Night Music transported us to the sounds and indeed mysteries of outdoors. Mr. Jumppannen is not only technically assured, but a very thoughtful artist.

    Comment by Terry Decima — February 27, 2017 at 10:46 am

  2. Googling shows that Idil Biret did them for Naxos, also Claude Helffer, Dimitri Vassilakis, Pi-Hsien Chen, and Herbert Henck. Charles Rosen’s versions were well-reviewed long ago although perhaps only two were issued.

    Comment by david moran — February 27, 2017 at 12:10 pm

  3. Thanks, David, for your Boulez piano sonata discography-it inspired me to look at my Archiv bookmark which listed many of the recordings you did. I wonder how many of these pianists actually keep these pieces in their active repertoire- they are not for the faint-hearted, playing or listening.

    Comment by Terry Decima — February 27, 2017 at 4:34 pm

  4. And the Bartok was something of a signature piece for Russell Sherman:

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 27, 2017 at 4:39 pm

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