Barraque Liszt Debussy Piano Works

Sometimes a CD comes along that is so intriguing that one just has to review it. Jean-Frédéric Neuburger’s recital on 14 January 2011 at the Cité de la Musique in Paris (“cadre Rising Stars”, apparently) has been faithfully issued as a single CD that catches the singularity both of his programming and playing. The sequence he has selected—Liszt’s Funérailles, a Neuburger première, Barraqué Sonate pour piano, and cryptic Debussy to close—is, in this 200th anniversary year of Liszt’s birth, impressively well-judged, and Neuburger’s performance demonstrates clearly that he knows exactly what he is about. Indeed, my CD player started to re-play the first track after the last had ended, and it segued perfectly—a brilliant exemplification of ‘ma fin est mon commencement’.

He approaches Liszt’s complex Funérailles with a brisk tempo; the pummeling bass oscillati are genuinely thunderous and yet rigorously controlled, while he manages to find a satisfying tenderness in the lyrical middle section. The militaristic bravado of the ending peaks well, and his left-hand octaves are truly impressive, but the recurrence of the theme as a ghostly envoi rather peters out. Nonetheless, Neuburger clearly understands the bleak psychology of the piece: after the anguished opening, melancholy passing bells peal throughout his performance.

Neuburger’s own work, Maldoror, named after the sinister symbolist ‘songs’ of Lautréamont, is anamalgam of high modernist and fleetingly-recalled Schumanny gestures. The primary soundworld of the piece, however, is dissonant and sonorous, with a group of prepared bass pitches providing an otherwordly flavour. I wish I could report that the work had a strong character, but for those comfortable with music of the sixties it will certainly provide an enjoyable twenty minutes, even if it does not make one wish to actively seek out more of Neuburger’s music. It is clear why he chose to play it before Jean Barraqué’s immense, awe-inspiring Sonate, which is, in my view, the outstanding piano work of the 1950s, written long before Xenakis or Finnissy had started their radical overhaul of what consituted standard piano technique, and legendarily an influence on the Boulez Sonates. There have been few prior recordings of this mammoth work, by Herbert Henck, Messiaen’s wife Yvonne Loriod, Stefan Litwin, and particularly, the adventurous Australian Roger Woodward, among others. It seems to take Neuburger a few minutes to settle in to the work:  the first movement only gradually acquires a telling expressivity, achieved through a deep layering of dynamcs and electrifying rhythmic contrast, coupled with a dexterity that allows Barraquè’s distinctive harmonies to emerge. Neuburger does not over-emphasise the contrast between the strict serialism and the looser sections in this first movement as some performances do—I think I miss the resulting structural clarity—but over time the sophisticated discourse draws one in. Towards end of the first, dialectical, movement, Neuburger starts to effectively presage the gestural hollowness of the balancing second movement, in which the carefully-assembled structural edifice of the first movement is dismantled. He holds this second movement together with an iron will, resisting the music’s tendency to disintegration and emphasising the gestural linking of phrases. The result is compelling. While this is not my favourite performance of the craggy work (that is probably Henck on ECM), it is certainly a convincing one, and, let’s be honest, any recordings of it are welcome. I heard no page-turns in this live recording: did Neuburger actually memorise it? That is impressive.

Neuburger closes the concert with a beautifully elusive performance of Debussy’s Et la lune descend sur la temple qui fut from the second book of Images; evocative and bell-like, with an exquisitely nostalgic melody, this piece captures a mood of calm melancholy. One could read the program as journeying from the anguish and immediacy of the battlefield via impassioned modernity and intense abstraction, to a detached resignation (but the one thing it is not, despite the CD blurb, is ‘excessive’ or ‘sensual’). However one decodes it, however, Neuburger’s adventurous progamming certainly works.

The whole live recital is performed with real panache, extraordinary technical ease and musicality, and is pedalled very discreetly, allowing for even tiny details to really speak. This is exceptionally fine pianistic artistry, a marvel of clarity and chiselled abstraction. For those who are put off by the substantial element of modernism in this CD Neuburger has recently demonstrated both his range and reliability as the soloist in a fascinating recording of 19th century Piano Concertos by Hérold, also on Mirare—a very different soundworld, and well worth investigating. The present disc will doubtless appeal primarily to adventurous listeners--enjoy!

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.