Two of the 20th century's most monumental compositions for piano -- Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit" and the Sonata No. 3 of Pierre Boulez -- electrified the audience last night at the Maison de France, the exquisite little auditorium in the new French Embassy on Reservoir Road NW.
French pianist Marc Ponthus was chastely baroque in a prelude and fugue from Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" and boldly romantic in Schumann's Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13. But the evening became unique in the second half of the program, when he turned to French music.
Ponthus belongs to a generation that has lived with the music of Boulez since its childhood. To him, it is not something new and strange; it is a familiar part of the standard musical landscape. That familiarity was radiantly present in his interpretation of the "Formant 2: trope" of the Boulez Sonata. Flowing through his fingers, the jagged phrases, asymmetrical structures, dynamic shocks and metrical eccentricities of the music suddenly made perfect musical sense. Contours of quasi-melodic lines and analogs of harmonic progressions emerged from the music; there was even (whether the composer would like it or not) strong emotional communication.
The same qualities were present, somewhat more readily, in the Ravel work, which seemed no less musical than usual but somehow less formidable -- partly because it shared the program with Boulez, but mostly because Ponthus has a technique and a musical sensitivity that simply brush technical obstacles aside.