“A master who worked with a very small hammer” is how the American neo-Romantic/post-Minimalist composer John Adams described Boulez upon the occasion of the maestro’s 80th birthday. If this slightly tortured form of praise doesn’t seem to have made much allowance for Boulez’s later-period compositions, that makes sense: In a way, it was the pointillistic jugular-stabbing of these early piano sonatas that first brought Boulez attention as a composer and theorist. The bigger the forces, the more generous Boulez’s sound world can seem. When it’s solo instrument time, especially from the era in which Boulez’s critical prose was at its polemical height, the listener may want to brace for an attack.
This is the one recording available that unites all three of the composer’s piano sonatas — including the unfinished (and slightly chance-based) final sonata. And though the reputation of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata as “unplayable” has, by now, been disproven half a dozen times on record, Boulez’s face on the Deutsche Grammophon cover here suggests that this traversal, by Paavali Jumppanen, has pride of place in the composer’s own record collection.