My HCMF 2012 experience began at midday today in St Paul’s Hall, with Nicolas Hodges’ lunchtime recital featuring piano music by Jean Barraqué. It’s rare, but marvellous, when a concert can be genuinely eye-opening, and everything about this recital was just that. Before the concert, i knew very little of Barraqué’s music, and as Hodges progressed through the first few pieces—Intermezzo, Pièce pour piano, Thème et variations (Retour was sadly omitted from the programme)—a distinct first impression began to take shape: enigmatic, mysterious, aloof, music realised through a sequence of loosely but unmistakably inter-connected melodic intentions that, despite being diffused through wide intervallic displacement, somehow hold together. They brought a very different composer to mind: Morton Feldman, due both to the meticulous way notes were placed after each other, as well as the striking way Barraqué grabs hold of one’s perception of time; despite the brevity of these pieces, their ability to make time malleable was impressive.
But only now did one’s eyes start to become truly opened. Following a (retrospectively somewhat dramatic) moment off stage, Hodges returned to deliver the Deux morceaux pour piano, the first of which undid practically every assumption one had made through the preceding works. Here, without any warning, was absolute fire, erupting in an unstoppable, bewildering cascade of splintered thought, Hodges’ fingers flying over the entire range of the keyboard at almost ludicrous speed. What, now, to make of Barraqué? True, the second of the morceaux displays the same cool reserve heard before, but the first was a genuine and overwhelming shock, as though something quietly benign had against all expectation exploded into raw power, like a monastic act of self-immolation.
This graduated approach to the language of Barraqué felt almost pedagogical (in the best sense), presenting a primer of sorts so as to create a context for what came next, his epic 40-minute Sonata, completed in 1952. On the one hand, this meant it felt stylistically familiar, yet the experience of hearing these diverse elements rigorously explored at length entirely transformed one’s understanding of them. For one thing, the Sonata is a very much more difficult listen, inasmuch as the demands it makes feel considerable (another Feldman similarity), and i’ll happily confess to a number of occasions when i didn’t so much feel ‘lost’ as simply stupefied at the fearlessly inexplicable way Barraqué moves between the work’s discrete strands. Yet for all its inscrutability, the best aspects of the miniature works are magnified to a huge degree, especially the oscillations between fast and slow tempi. If time felt malleable before, now it becomes entirely fluid, Hodges seemingly pulling time around at will, and on occasions stopping it altogether.
Understated throughout, almost meditative, Nicolas Hodges’ performance of this beguiling music was one of the most transparent i’ve ever seen, as though channelling directly Barraqué’s musical voice. United in performance, both composer and pianist were absolutely astonishing.