Sunday’s Gardner Museum concert was the first of a series centered on the three piano sonatas of Pierre Boulez, surrounding each with music of Bartok and Debussy. It featured two of the venue’s favorite performers: pianist Paavali Jumppanen and violinist Corey Cerovsek. This is exactly the kind of wide-angle exploratory programming at which the Gardner has excelled during Scott Nickrenz’s tenure as music curator. Yet it also raised a penetrating question: To what extent should composers embrace the models and dialects of their predecessors?
The concert, superbly performed, produced three different answers. Debussy’s Etudes bear links to Chopin and Czerny, celebrated creators in the form. Like them, Debussy’s are at least superficially intended to test particular pianistic skills. But he also smuggles in much of the imagistic power that animates the rest of Debussy’s music. The etude for repeated notes could have been found in Debussy’s Preludes, a sketch of clown mugging for laughs. One piece, played by Jumppanen with unfailingly deft touch, explores what Debussy called “opposing sonorities”: really, what else did he ever write?
Bartok’s rarely played Sonata for Solo Violin takes its formal bearings from Bach’s sonatas for the same instrument, and it begins with a Bachian gesture that recurs just enough to remind you of that link. As the piece unfolds, Bartok’s coarse harmonic language asserts itself, and echoes of his own earlier works come into view. By the finale, he has left the older model behind completely and telescoped an entire career’s inspiration into a single instrumental voice. Cerovsek’s performance was a marvel — fluid and powerful, digging deeply into the strings and full of pointed rhythmic elan.
Debussy and Bartok composed these works near the end of their lives. Boulez, by contrast, was in his early 20s when he wrote the First Sonata. Though he took inspiration from Schoenberg’s 12-tone method of composing, he seemed determined to cut himself from as much of music’s past as possible. Thus the music lives in a constant state of displacement, lest any prevalent mood or melodic shape seem too sentimental. Nothing ever begins or ends: It all just explodes and disappears.
Jumppanen’s playing of this 12-minute fireworks display was as ferocious as it needed to be. Yet perhaps his greatest feats were the sensuousness of the sound he coaxed from the Gardner’s piano, and the cohesion he found amid the upheaval. Perhaps the young composer had taken something from his forebears after all.
The series continues on Feb. 26.
Paavali Jumppanen and Corey Cerovsek
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Feb. 19