Marc Ponthus’ Masterful Beethoven and Stockhausen

I’m of two minds about this release. The playing — and the recording — is first-rate. Marc Ponthus’ skill and musicality deliver performances full of vitality. 

Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata is a Mount Everest for pianists. It’s incredibly challenging to play. And it’s almost as challenging to make sense of. There is an underlying structure and logic to the work. But it’s not readily discernable as it is in, say, a Mozart sonata. 

The same can be said for Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke X. It’s derived from a number square Stockhausen developed. This square controls various aspects of the composition process. In this work, he also used a system of seven: chord clusters of 1-7 notes; action/rest durations, note values (1-7), etc.

Both are quite complex pieces. Ponthus has invested a great deal of time in the study and analysis of these works. And it was time well spent. I was particularly struck by his performance of Klavierstücke X. Ponthus instilled a sense of purpose in his playing. 

Superficially the work can sound wild and chaotic. But Ponthus is in control. He knows the function of every note, and how it fits into the structure of the work. With repeated listening, I began to hear hints of that structure, too. 

The Hammerklavier is the more traditional Ultimate Piano Sonata. Many virtuosi have performed and recorded it. Ponthus’ interpretation goes beneath the surface. He makes connections between motives that are sometimes surprising. But logical in retrospect. 

I enjoyed this recording very much. But the liner notes, not so much. I appreciate Ponthus for trying to explain how he arrived at his interpretations. And I know it’s difficult to talk about music in a non-musical setting (like text). 

But the entire essay is filled with sentences like this: 

“These two works are so concentrated and charged with deeply organic forces that they stand on their own. relatively detached from their creators, as they demand a level of engagement from both performer and listener that results in experiences of appropriation and unanticipated significance, in taxing perceptions and effects, and in the breakthrough into metaphysics.”

Holy moly. That’s a lot baggage to saddle any piece of music with. Sorry, these performances were thrilling. But I never broke through into the metaphysical world. I’m sympathetic to what Ponthus was trying to articulate. But my advice is this. Play the album, don’t read the booklet. These works can speak for themselves.       

Ludwig van Beethoven: Hammerklavier Sonata Op. 106
Karlhenz Stockhausen: Klavierstücke X
Marc Ponthus, piano
Bridge Records 9584


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