Legalized Violence

A gap of 166 years separates the C-minor Piano Concerto of Mozart (K. 491) from the Piano Sonata of Jean Barraqué, but they share at least this: the ability to wreak sheer violence upon an audience, to numb the ears into disbelief by the power of innovation. Not all pianists are smart enough to recognize this in the Mozart, although the very opening notes — the jagged theme that pushes upward and further upward, not at all the shapely “classic” outline but rather something of a shriek — reveal the plan. Unlike any but a couple of other works in his huge output, Mozart chooses to end both first and last movements in the same minor key that they had begun, again turning his back on the classic ideal of a “happy ending.”

Christian Zacharias was smart enough; his performance with the Philharmonic, conducting from the piano, in the second week of a splendid guest stint, was outsized, rawboned, truly dramatic. Again, as in the previous week, he did something really interesting in the first-movement cadenza; recognizing this as the most richly scored of all the concertos, he turned what is usually a solo improv into another dialogue between piano and orchestra, going on brilliantly from what Mozart surely had in mind. Two Haydn symphonies framed the Mozart: No. 83, which also begins with a jagged, upward theme, and No. 103, in a performance larger than life and just right. He’s a find, this Zacharias.

As long as composers compose, critics criticize; seldom the twain do meet. Four centuries ago the critic G.M. Artusi turned his vitriol-laden pen upon the innovations of Claudio Monteverdi, and his fame clings to that slender thread of happenstance. In my own century I didn’t happen upon Constant Lambert’s 1934 Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline until I was old enough to winnow out the baloney. Two books by the late Henry Pleasants — the 1955 The Agony of Modern Music and the 1961 Death of Music? — struck me in their time as owners’ manuals for ulcer patients, while Norman Lebrecht’s 1997 Who Killed Classical Music? comes over as low-grade sci-fi.

There was another book in 1961 that also raised a fair amount of dust, and which a recent event has inspired me to dig out from under its own layer of dust on my back shelves. Its title is Since Debussy, A View of Contemporary Music, by André Hodeir, a performer and critic better known on the jazz side of the fence but obviously at home on this side as well. (It is currently out of print, listed on the hierarchy-of-sales list as No. 1,057,652.) Most of the aforementioned broadsides assume a conservative stance against any and all abominations in the cause of advancing music’s frontiers. Hodeir’s household deities, however, included the young Boulez and Stockhausen, the elder statesmen Schoenberg and Messiaen, and one further figure who at 33 had still only produced a small body of work not yet very well known but whom Hodeir — and apparently Hodeir alone — recognized as “the only one great 20th-century disciple of Beethoven.” That emergent savior was Jean Barraqué — who died at a mere 45, leaving Hodeir’s prophesy unfulfilled — and it was the Piano Sonata of Barraqué, performed at the County Museum by Marino Formenti on the first of his four programs of 20th-century piano music, that left me in a state of exhilaration beyond any experience this season. And I’ve had some doozers.

I have to note here that Formenti’s performance may not have been exactly what Barraqué had in mind. It lasted about 25 minutes, while a recent and superlative recording on ECM, by Herbert Henck, runs 46; other performances, friends tell me, have run as long as 55. The work is in two movements, of which the second is meant to proceed at a pace preternaturally slow, its great misshapen sound blocks set apart by silences whose actual length the performer must decide. Henck’s decisions, which in his extended program note he links to the example of John Cage, run long; his projection of the entire work, thrilling in its way, is of an otherworld landscape, with vistas of vast crags gradually spaced out toward nothingness. “No music of this density,” Hodeir writes, “has been composed since [Beethoven’s] Great Fugue; that fact alone should suggest the kind of shock it can produce at first hearing.”

Formenti’s version was all about momentum, extraordinarily under control. The sheer power pinned you to your seat (“you” being the 50 or so brave souls spread through LACMA’s 600-seat Bing Theater that night), yet there was never a moment when the coiled-spring complexity of Barraqué’s writing, the interweave of gnarled, surging atonal lines, was in any way blurred or diminished. Of silence there was little; the ending — the sudden fall of the music’s curtain, as Barraqué gives us the bare notes of his tone row, slowly, one by one, resounding out of dark nothingness — was no less shocking than the mountainous pileups that had gone before. The two performances — insofar as any recorded performance can compare to the impact of reality stunningly delivered — are so unalike that you would need to own both to come at all close to this one-of-a-kind work.

Formenti, 34, northern Italian by birth, now lives in Vienna; he was here two years ago with the Klangforum Wien at the surprise-laden Resistance Fluctuations festival. The Barraqué ended a French program that also included all 12 of Boulez’s exquisite Notations and the superheated thunder of several parts of Messiaen’s Twenty Regards on the Child Jesus. Formenti plays with fingers, but also with brains; after the jillion notes of the Barraqué, the single encore was the air-clearing emptiness of Debussy’s Footsteps on the Snow. The second program, Italian, included the rich, dark fantasy of Luigi Nono’s . . . Sofferte Onde Serene . . . for piano and tape, and also Luigi Dallapiccola’s Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera, deep, fragrant music by a composer now unjustly neglected. (His Volo di Notte comes to the Long Beach Opera next month, and is not to be missed.) Formenti is an amazing pianist; all praise to the LACMA management that brought him here (and here alone) for four marvelously planned century’s-end programs. On the day this paper hits the stands, May 4, you have time to rush to LACMA for his final concert.

Confession: I wrote last week about Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet on the basis of information on the Internet. Now I’ve heard the Auvidis recording — the Ardittis sawing away in their flying machines, calling out the cues (“eins, zwei, drei . . .”), and the engines themselves, soaring, roaring and beautifully subsiding at the end. It may only be a studio mix; for the real thing you have to pay $55 to Stockhausen’s own company. It is also extremely beautiful, in ways you probably wouldn’t believe, so I won’t try. I’ve been playing it all week, alternating with the Barraqué Sonata, and I think I too am flying.