View Full Version : Paavali Jumppanen Plays Boulez

Aug-23-2005, 21:40
Here’s one I’ve been waiting for. Boulez’s piano sonatas are rarely recorded, so any new recording is welcome. For a while now, I’ve relied on Claude Helffer’s set on Naïve for all three, and of course I return to Maurizio Pollini’s astonishing recording of the Second Sonata as a reference for that work. Idil Biret’s Naxos offering is less enticing. So I wanted to try something new. When I learned that the composer himself helped pick the pianist, well, my expectations were heightened. In this case, my expectations were met.

Jumppanen is a young Finn who has not recorded before, or so it appears. He plays much standard rep, as is to be expected, but he apparently also plays a good quantity of modern and contemporary music, and his experience in this field is evident throughout. I’ll just start with the First Sonata: Jumppanen opens delicately enough, and then he proceeds into the staccato-laden piece with abandon. His dynamic range is wide, his control precise, his digits extraordinarily dexterous. He moves through the first movement with nary a note out of place. If perhaps the opening to the second movement lacks that last little bit of anger, the off-set is found in his varied and never hard sounding tone. Yes, there are some sharp notes and chords to jar, but these are called for in the piece. Helffer is quite good in this work, but the youngster’s technical prowess and obliterating command make him the more entertaining listen.

Now to the Second Sonata. Jumppanen faces much stiffer competition from the masterful Italian in this work, but rather than provide an unrelentingly driven approach like Pollini’s often sounds, Jumppanen offers something different. At just over 31 minutes, he takes a couple minutes longer than Pollini and about five minutes longer than Helffer. Don’t worry, the anger and fitful bursts of serial arpeggios still grace the first and third movements. Jumppanen unfurls the brutally dense note thickets with seeming ease. He never seems to strain. He never sounds hard. Indeed, he sounds, well, relaxed. Well, not really relaxed, but he is at ease with the music. As a result, the clarity he brings to the piece rivals what Pollini musters, and that’s saying quite a bit. The bigger surprise comes in the second and fourth movements. In the slower passages, Pollini offers a cold, austere, and often bleak outlook. It is quite captivating. In contrast, Jumppanen offers a world of variegated colors and textures. Take the middle portion of the Lent: he varies the volume of the quieter music subtly and offers a sort of chilled, serial Debussyian approach, if you will, that while not warm and embracing, still invites one to concentrate just a little but harder to hear what Boulez was saying. The Young Lion was no heartless intellectual, nor was he (nor is he) an icy, vicious revolutionary bent on destroying all that came before. No! He still cherished beauty, but he didn’t write no stinkin’ syrupy music. Of course this is not romantic music – I don’t want to give that impression – but Jumppanen offers a broader color palette for one to enjoy. For those who demand rigor and technical command, his take on the towering fugal climax of the final movement is likewise captivating and utterly appropriate to his conception of the piece. He does it all. Better than Pollini? No. Different. And at about the same level.

But to understand Jumppanen’s achievement, one must listen to the unfinished Third Sonata. He opts for the opposite Formant sequence than Helffer – he goes sequentially from the second to third, and he orders the segments differently. That is all irrelevant. What is relevant is his playing. His dynamic range is truly breathtaking. He positively unleashes a brutal lower register assault, thundering through various segments in a way that leaves Helffer in the dust. He never merely bangs or sounds harsh; his tone is always controlled and never steely or clangy. This pays enormous dividends as one moves back and forth between violent outbursts and moments of quietude. This is more a nineteen minute exploration than structured composition with a point. It is a sometimes bleak, sometimes haunting, sometimes mesmerizing world that has found a new master. Boulez’s own brief complimentary notes praise the young man’s take on the Third. I know why. It is remarkable.

As to sound: it’s how I like it. The piano is closely miked and not too reverberant, but it has plenty of dynamic range and color. One gets that nice sensation of the piano being played behind and between the speakers. The sound is also remarkably clear and grain-free, so one can play it at first row levels with ease. A few mechanism noises apart (ie, quick pedal releases), all is top of the line.

What an unusual and welcome recording debut. One must have commercial fortitude to start with Boulez rather than one of the 19th Century standards. Of course, to really gain an appreciation of what he can do, I’d like to hear his take on some of that music, but for now, this is a fine debut. I shall spin it again very soon.