No algorithm will ever equal the feat of will that the 24-year-old Jean Barraqué accomplished in composing his “Piano Sonata,” a score that so powerfully established the composer’s mature idiom that he set fire to the entirety of his output that had preceded it. Nor will they ever equal Steven Vanhauwaert’s achievement last Saturday in scaling this towering Everest of the piano.
The work was the conclusion of a vibrant Jacaranda Music program entitled “Mental Energy,” though Vanhauwaert’s performance was as much a feat of physical energy.
Barraqué’s “Piano Sonata” is a combustible mix of Bach, late Beethoven, and even Liszt fused with the composer’s own highly expressive serial idiom. Vanhauwaert revealed and revelled in all those facets, allowing his hands, which the composer had tasked to their utmost, to reveal the humanity and vulnerability at the heart of this score.
Certainly the work is a marvel of thematic logic and progression, of the myriad developments of Barraqué’s idiosyncratic use of tone rows. But what Vanhauwaert imprinted most deeply in the listener’s mind was the almost plaintive utopianism that set alight the pioneers of serial music. Far from wanting to alienate their audiences, these composers sought to engage audiences while making them question the boundaries of what is possible in sound. Yet it also expressed, after a decade of global warfare that left much of Europe in ashes, the hope that a new music in a global language could knock down the barriers that had previously sown distrust and even hate; an idiom which could potentially be intelligible to any listener, whether they were in Paris, Pasadena or Pyongyang. It was this duality of architectural logic and universal expressivity that animated Vanhauwaert’s staggering performance, one in which careful preparation bore fruit in playing that was translucent and almost improvisatory.
His performance of Messiaen’s “Quatre études de rythme,” which preceded the Barraqué, whet the ear for the main course that was to come, Vanhauwaert’s fingers setting the fuse for phosphorescent explosions that shimmered against a the backdrop of a tropical night.
Néstor Castiglione, Crescenta Weekly, March 2018