Conservatory gives pride of place to a rarely heard sonata

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2010

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Every art form has masterpieces whose allure is inseparable from their rarity or remoteness, like Mayan relics deep in the jungle. The Chichen Itza of pianistic high modernism is the 1950-52 Sonata of Jean Barraqué, performed by pianist Yoko Hagino as the centerpiece and raison d’être of the third concert of Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival.

In his early 20s, Barraqué — a denizen of postwar Paris’ fiercely experimental avant-garde — tackled the task of translating the large-scale drama of the Classical sonata into atonal serialism in grand, steely style. Barraqué’s Sonata is a 45-minute expanse of gleaming shards, eschewing tonal reference or regular pulse, the clock’s competing gears dismantled into pure flow. Pairs of repeated notes are one of the few reference points; other passages hold together with octave invariance, certain pitches always ringing out in the same range, the aural equivalent of turning over an artifact in one’s hands. In place of the contrasts of keys and themes are polarities of loud and soft, high and low, compact and expansive, even mobility and paralysis: Halfway through, the music freezes into a constellation of isolated notes, dotted with occasional reminiscences of the work’s initial tumult.

Hagino navigated the score with bravura confidence and energy. Her tone was bright, edgy, at times hammered; the fast, jagged virtuosity was forcefully riveted, while slow sections were more stark than sparse, the emptiness in the phrases riding the decay of Hagino’s sharp accents. Even at its quietest, the music had an undercurrent of adrenalin. It was an unequivocally high-contrast reading, but the Sonata can take a range of interpretations; what is compelling about the experience of it is not so much its moment-to-moment narrative, but the ambition and ascetic purity with which Barraqué constructed, explored, and dissected its uncompromising vocabulary.

The program balanced the Sonata with miniatures. The 12 “Notations,’’ concentrated doses of both activity and lively stasis by Barraqué’s more famous colleague Pierre Boulez, were given a stained-glass rendition by pianist Roxana Bajdechi, hard-edged fields of bright color. Redi Llupa used surgical touch and control to spin Luciano Berio’s “Six Encores,’’ garrulous sketches that sweep away the piano’s attack in soft torrents of notes and waves of pedal. And Gretchen Peery-Hewitt played three of György Ligeti’s “Etudes’’ for piano with forthright clarity, bringing out the quirky creativity of the musical clockwork and, in the coursing “Désorde,’’ adding a nice hint of rock ’n’ roll muscle.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at


Yoko Hagino, Roxana Bajdechi, Redi Llupa, and Gretchen Peery-Hewitt, pianists

At: Seully Hall, Boston Conservatory, Saturday