Ponthus on what is difficult and visionary
Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts presented pianist Marc Ponthus to the Gardner Museum on Saturday night as part of a special celebration of Russell Sherman’s 91st birthdayst birthday. An audience, few in number due to the Coronavirus, witnessed the monuments of Ludwig van Beethoven, his Piano Sonata no. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106, (“Hammerklavier”), and Karlheinz Stockhausen, his Klavierstück X.
Pioneer of the “solo piano monographic recital”, performing works by 20eavant-garde composers of the century, Ponthus made Stockhausen profound and Beethoven disconcerting.
The monk pianist has referred to the revered Russell Sherman as one who does not seek confirmation from others, choosing instead to do it alone. Ponthus also spoke about ethics, morals and aesthetics, and the need to establish critical theories of performance.
Beethoven: “What is difficult is also beautiful, good, great and so on. “
Stockhausen speaking of artists: “… and then very few who had visionary power…. ”
Unsurprisingly, much of what has been written about these two testaments focuses on musical structure. You will find other informative program notes from Dr Jannie Burdeti HERE.
In imagining the musical structures and potential of an instrument, Beethoven and Stockhausen undertook consciously and intensely, with one of the consequences being new and extreme demands on the performer and the listener. Imagine, as a listener, how many sounds, structures, functions or meanings are contained in some 40 minutes of Beethoven and some 20 of Stockhausen.
“Hammerklavier” might have sounded better if there were more bodies in the room. Only 80 were allowed to attend. The Steinway’s highs were too bright, the hammer on the string too obvious most of the time. What was Ponthus thinking, also a composer? The program notes, I wonder now, could have been helpful in including the ideas of the performer as well as those of the composer, especially in a work like this. In this case, this monument has become striking, grayish.
I heard for the first time Klavierstück X in the early 1960s at one of Pierre Boulez’s Domaine Musicale concerts in Paris. At the time, mittens and talcum powder seemed comical and the work unfathomable. With only the gloves cut out and no sheet music, Marc Ponthus sat at the piano in Calderwood Hall as if he were in meditation throughout this astonishing feat. Fingers flew or sank silently, keys, palms slid all over the place, forearms one, two at a time, met the keyboard, pedals were all in play. No noise, no of clicking. Music like no other, or was it?
Seeing all of this as if looking at an abstract canvas, a sense of the music’s past could in fact be perceived, even dark. This, in particular through the rhythmic / gestural lens. A look at Stockhausen’s score, however, would suggest otherwise. How much of this surprising bond was in Ponthus’ hands? Its richly colored clusters of keyboard notes, drawn out of order at first, gradually came to order. Not with closed eyes. Not even during the silences, some long. You had to watch this pianist as well as listen. The silences, intended to isolate the structures of order, have also proved how precious they are as contrast, relief, time for reflection.
In his homage to Russell Sherman, Ponthus noted how the pianist had created indelible performances for him. This very comment could be made of Marc Ponthus’ own extraordinary and supernatural performance of Klavierstück X at the Gardner Museum.
As he walked out of Calderwood, he wore a most peaceful angelic expression.