Barraqué: Piano Sonata

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WORKS: Piano Sonata
PERFORMER: Herbert Henck (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 453 914-2
Jean Barraqué’s Piano Sonata acquired almost mythical status in the Sixties and Seventies, when huge claims were made for its composer’s importance, and the chances to hear what was his first published work (completed in 1951), live or on record, were remote. It may be more accessible now (all of Barraqué’s tiny output, for instance, was issued in a three-disc set by CPO last year) but the power and magnificence of this 50-minute two-movement work remain intact; alongside Boulez’s three sonatas, Stockhausen’s Tenth Piano Piece and Ligeti’s continuing series of Studies, it is one of the piano masterpieces of the last half-century.


Barraqué’s achievement was to marry the rigorous organisation of serialism (like Boulez, he was a Messiaen pupil) with the rhetoric and emotional sweep of Romanticism. Comparisons with Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata aren’t that far-fetched; this too is a work that stretches the performer to the limits, and that battles against the odds to express itself in music of great grandeur. The enemy that Barraqué’s music fights is silence, which eats away at the textures and finally extinguishes them altogether, picking off notes one by one; the tragic message of the final pages is unmistakable, but the whole work carries the same immediate power. Herbert Henck’s commanding performance, perhaps more than any other I’ve heard, delivers that power in full measure; this is a superlative account of an extraordinary achievement. Andrew Clements