“20th Century Classics—Debussy, Bartók, Boulez” Sunday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum wrapped up the three-part series with Debussy never before heard as we experienced it. Featuring piano marvel Paavali Jumppanen, the series continued to be something of a rare bird, yet unlike last week, more were on hand, and more hands came to together to laud both pianist and gifted young violinist Corey Cerovsek and rightfully so. Pierre Boulez’s Deuxième Sonate pour piano and Béla Bartók’s Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20 made for another astonishing round of three leaders out of the past century.
How could Béla Bartók’s Op. 20 be improvisations if all eight of them are written down? Paavali Jumppanen helped answer that by rendering them as if they were just being pulled out of a magician’s hat. Fresh yet inevitable, these Improvisations sounded. Dissonances transformed by Jumppanen’s ever developing pianistic imagination contrasted remarkably with the pianist’s singing narratives of the highly varied Hungarian tunes on which Bartók based his extemporaneous musings.
Whereas last week Boulez’s Troisième Sonate pour piano reached for the stars and rocketed into galactic wonderment, his Deuxième Sonate churned on lofty yet terrestrial surfaces. Space, both vertical and more especially horizontal, was yet to become integral to the serialist’s mathematical penchant. No feelings come of this music, not even images for most. Although I must say that as the fourth movement that came with a bang and a whimper, that latter passage left me experiencing desolation. One more word, it remains somewhat incredible that given all the “destruction” of traditional forms and devices, Boulez relied not infrequently on the crescendo and even decrescendo so typical of the Romantic Era.
That being said, Paavali Jumppanen, seated at a lidless Steinway in the midst of Calderwood Hall, generated rapt attention. All of some 30-plus minutes of extraordinary pianism and equally extraordinary genuineness rang out be it in a single isolated note or in handfuls of tone clusters. Attacks and releases, some of the latter had notes pedaled into vanishing points. All over the keyboard, Jumppanen truly furthered Boulez’s cause from super-delicacy to superpower. And as to momentum or continuum, take for example the first movement marked extremely rapid, where his big sweeps conflated myriads of tonal, rhythmic and dynamic detail giving a larger dimension so often missing in the realm of those mathematician-musician composers. Comments from other listeners went along similar lines. While meaning and emotion in the Boulez eluded us, Jumppanen’s firm grasp of this sonata—one that for an overwhelming number of pianists is simply impossible to play—constituted a major feat, bringing the audience to , yes, a standing O.
And in yet another inventive turn, after a short intermission, there followed an even shorter work, Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G Major. At under a quarter of an hour, the three-movement work, the composer’s last, unspooled as a verifiable masterpiece in the hands of Cerovsek and Jumppanen. Cerovsek’s finely fixated violin along with Jumppanen’s captivating touch proved blockbusting, as the composer’s imagery soared. Violin and piano spoke as if made for each other. Playfulness, nostalgia, laughter, tenderness and many more moods shifted in a cocking of the ear. They would have been gloriously on the same sheet had they not been playing from memory; their synchronicity sent us right over the edge.
Last week came galactic wonderment, this week brought multihued encounters with the human interiors of the third kind. Bring ’em back!
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). www.notescape.net