Pierre Boulez's three piano sonatas are early works indeed. The first two were written in his early 20s, while the third came not long after. Here the young Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen gives a reading which, if not outright called definitive by the composer, still seems to carry his approval.
Even for those familiar with much serial music, even if you've heard everything else Boulez composed, the piano sonatas can be difficult listening. In fact, in the beginning one might think it merely a series of bleeps and bloops without order. Gaining insight into these takes time, and in the beginning one should focus on the simple succession of individual gestures even if the musical development on a large scale can't be perceived. Over time, however, the sonatas unlock their secrets, and one begins to notice motifs and clever form.
The first two sonatas are not Boulez's first pieces--they were preceded by the recently rehabilitated "Notations" for piano (1945)--but they are Boulez's first individual achievement. In the "Piano Sonata No. 1" (1946) the sonorities of Webern (especially the "Symphonie" op. 21), coexist with an interest in dynamic and attack which is pure Boulez. The first movement is developed out of merely four opening gestures: a rising minor sixth, an appoggiatura, an isolated note, and a brusqe arpeggio. The second movement opens with cells all over the keyboard, and the dashing between octaves hints at Boulez's later solo piano work "Incises".
For much of his career has sought to take serialism beyond mere miniatures, like Webern, to grand designs. The four-movement "Piano Sonata No. 2" (1948) is, at nearly a half an hour long, an important venture in this direction. Popular opinions about Boulez as entirely detached from tradition will be amazed at the work's clear debt to Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" and "Waldstein" sonatas, and it even uses a B-A-C-H motif throughout. Its first movement is marked "extremement vif"--right off we find a violence and virtuosity never before heard in Boulez--and it posseses the elegant dramatic arc of classical sonata form, exposition--development--recapitulation. The second, slow movement is lyrical and melodic, while the brief (three-minute) third minute combines variation and scherzo form. The fourth movement, however, is extremely rich, made up of an introduction, a fugue, a rondo, and a coda. A twelve-tone fugue makes for exciting listening.
The "Piano Sonata No. 3" (1955-57) was written during Boulez's interest in quasi-aleatoric writing where the performer was free to decide the order of the piece's sections. Inspired by Mallarme and the possibility of a book in perpetual expansion, this quality can be found also in Boulez's "Eclat" and "Pli selon pli", though Boulez ultimately fixed the ordering of the latter. This sonata has remained uncompleted for almost fifty years, and of the five "formants" (not "movements", since they don't move forward) which are to make up the piece, only the second and third have been published. The Third Sonata is by far the most abstract of the three, and understanding its structure involves close listening, ideally with score at hand. While based on an interesting concept, it offers fewer possibilities for mere entertainment than the first two.
I'm loathe to criticize Jumppanen's performance, since Boulez sure thinks highly of it. So far I've only heard the recordings with Jumppanen and Idil Biret (on Naxos), and while the lighter touch of Biret is good listening, she flubs a few parts of the second that Jumppanen handles flawlessly. Jumppanen's use of pedal is much heavier, but it seems in keeping with the score. This recording has fine liner notes by Paul Griffiths, but for best understanding the sonatas I'd recommend getting a copy of Dominique Jameux's PIERRE BOULEZ (English translation Harvard University Press, 1991 ISBN 0-674-66740-9).
For me, Boulez really hit his stride after "Eclat", when he produced a number of works full of brilliant colour and elegant construction such as "Sur Incises", "...explosante-fixe..." and "Repons". I'd recommend those first to anyone curious about Boulez's music. Still, the piano sonatas are an interesting step in Boulez's musical development, as well as some of the most rigorous and adventurous serial writing of the generation after the Second Viennese School.