Digging through the Contemporary Classical bins at the old Tower Records on Broadway in NYC was an endless source of mystery and magic. Sometimes, I would pick a recording based on nothing more than the fact that I didn’t know much, or anything, about it. Such was the case with Jean Barraqué’s Le Temps restitué.
First a little background on Jean Barraqué. Early in his career, he had written just 4 pieces, Andre Hodeir in his book ”Since Debussy” from 1961 proclaimed that Barraqué’s Piano Sonata (1952) was “perhaps the finest piano sonata since Beethoven.” Time Magazine picked up on this anointing, creating a reputation much larger than life (or available works). Barraqué struggled to get his work recognized for most of his brief life, he died at the age of 45, and his music never achieved the same status as that of his more famous contemporaries including Pierre Boulez, who tried to get the Piano Sonata performed back in the day.
Barraqué had an ongoing relationship with philosopher Michel Foucault, which is relevant here because it was Foucault who introduced Hermann Broch’s novel The Death of Virgil to Barraqué, inspiring him to set out on cycle of works, La Mort de Virgile. While never completed, Le Temps restitué is from this planned cycle.
From Paul Griffiths’ Sept. 20, 1998 NY Times review of Barraqué’s Complete Works:
Barraqué’s music exists in an almost perpetual state of exhilaration, fear and desperation. And thought races on in his music quite simply because there is nowhere for it to stop. It can latch onto a single note for a moment, and many of the most memorable passages in Barraqué are these places of radiant unison or tentative agreement among instruments. But to affirm anything larger than a note — a motif, a harmony — would be to risk the illusion of restoring past certainties, and this Barraqué could never tolerate. Long before the young neo-Romantics of the 1970’s, he felt the need for music to be expansive, but he got there without aping the habits of former times.
Controlled madness (a developing theme in my Classic Albums picks). That’s what I heard when I first spun the CD on my California Audio Labs CD player (remember those?) and it is more or less what I hear today. The mystery and magic I dug for didn’t always turn up a nugget, but Le Temps restitué still delivers after all these years. I’ve chosen to focus on the performance and recording as conducted by Paul Mefano on Harmonia Mundi France (1987) because this is the CD I bought back in the ’80s. You can easily find a copy of the CD on the used market.
This composition is also performed on the aforementioned Complete Works. Here’s a taste:
A few more interesting thoughts from Paul Griffiths (which can also be applied in equal measure to hifi):
Whether he can be placed in their ranks [Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Debussy], only time — not Time — will tell, but it will never tell unless it is asked the question, and it cannot be asked the question unless Barraque’s works are in the forum of debate.
More to the point, the listening can continue.