"Whole slabs of sound crumble and vanish between the all-engulfing ocean of silence, until only the twelve notes of the row remain, and even those are plucked off, one by one." André Hodeir's poetic characterization of Barraqué's Sonate as a work in which music finally loses an heroic battle against encroaching silence is better-known, perhaps, than the piece itself. Barraqué's Sonata has remained one of the toughest pianistic challenges in modern composition, a much-discussed and seldom played piece. With its oblique trajectory and staggered dying fall, its asymmetric and sometimes apparently irrational rhythms, and its buried or "negative" tone-rows, it remains a veritable Matterhorn of abstraction. Only a handful of pianists have faced up to it, among them Yvonne Loriod, Claude Helffer and Roger Woodward - whose 1972 recording of the sonata was considered, for a very long time, to be as far as any inte irpreter could get with this intentionally recalcitrant, secretive material. Musicologist Richard Toop has drawn attention to Barraqué's sympathy for Debussy's standpoint on the question of musical accessibility: "Music should really have been a hermetic science, hedged around by texts whose interpretation would be so long and difficult as to surely discourage that troop of people who make use of music as nonchalantly as one uses a pocket handkerchief."
"The Sonata defies real analysis," Hodeir had insisted in 1961, "It is unclassifiable, incomparable and, to some degree, still incommunicable." And yet even then, a handful of players had a sense of its worth. Composer Bill Hopkins was smitten by the Sonata, and listened to it "repeatedly, intently, with an overwhelming apprehension of living greatness. If music meant anything today, only here was that meaning fully grasped..." Barraqué himself was prepared to wait for these sentiments to be expressed more universally, estimating, in Propos Impromp ˜tu, that "it will take fifty years to establish if I am the musician others - including myself - think I am." His early death in 1973, at the age of 45, left his most ambitious undertaking, the sprawling cycle La Mort de Virgile, uncompleted, and deprived him of the opportunity to witness the beginnings of a revival of interest in his work, when the Piano Sonata would repeatedly be compared with the Boulez sonatas and with Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" sonata op. 106.
Born into a middle class family in Puteaux in 1928, Jean Barraqué had no intention - despite early piano and violin lessons - of becoming a composer until he was confronted with the "emotional shock" of hearing a gramophone recording of Schubert's Symphony No. 8 "Unfinished" at the age of 12. Schubert and Beethoven became inspirational guiding lights through his years as fledgling composer. Then, in 1948, Barraqué joined Messiaen's celebrated Paris Conservatoire class for analysis and rhythm, where he discovered simultaneously the work *of Debussy (about whom he would write at length) and - newly imported into France - the music of Webern. From 1951 to 1954, Barraqué was a member of the ORTF Groupe de Musique Concrète and briefly made use in his music of electronic resources. The Piano Sonata, however, was the first of his major works, and was completed in 1952.
Herbert Henck's gradual immersion in Barraqué's sound world is meticulously detailed in the pianist's liner notes, as is his coming to terms with the Sonata's silences and his "decision to dwell on a section with tone-cells that constantly moved further apart, and to increase nine pauses... The growing silence I saw as a transition, as a kind of preparation for the breadth of the second movement, which follows the first almost casually... The prescribed tempi and pauses almost froze the music here, and more and more solidifying shapes of glassy beauty, peace and purity were created.
"At the end of the learning process there was not a single point throughout the Sona ‚ta where I had a sense of too much theory or too little expression; I found that everywhere there was the same effect of musical commitment, energy and creative force, the same red-heat of the spirit."
Indeed, Henck's driven performance puts the lie to the frequently-voiced opinion that the dominant mood of Barraqué's work is one of bleakness. Dominique Jameux has observed that "Barraqué's high music drew its power from the contradiction between the will to construct and the necessity of silence in a world tending to the destruction of values, whether musical or ethical." This is the contradiction that Herbert Henck explores most persuasively.