Piano proving grounds don't come more efficient than Pierre Boulez's Piano Sonata No. 1, utilizing more of the instrument every 20 seconds than most pieces do in their entirety. On Sunday afternoon, pianist Paavali Jumppanen powered through Boulez's volatile twists and turns to inaugurate the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's new Steinway piano.
The sound of the new piano — selected by Jumppanen on a trip to Steinway's factory in Hamburg this summer — was still veiled behind the pianistic equivalent of new-car smell, the sonic line between resonant and thick not yet clear. But Jumppanen's performance of the Sonata was fierce and strong, its young-man provocations (Boulez wrote it when he was 21) angled to a point. (A sharp one at that: Jumppanen paused before the next number to wipe blood off the keys.)
It was a vivid glimpse of the vehemence with which Boulez and his generation drew their atonal line in the post-World War II sand — as was Boulez's Sonatine, with Jumppanen joined by flutist Paula Robison. Written, like the Sonata, in 1946, the Sonatine is even more adventurous: perpetual-motion fireworks going off from every direction, a long passage saturated with glissandi and trills verging on science fiction.
Robison, one of the flute's most prominent American advocates and a mainstay of Gardner Museum concerts, was at her best in the Boulez, matching Jumppanen's clanging combinations blow for blow. The amount of power Robison wrings from her instrument is formidable, though at a cost of timbral variety: Prominent vibrato and almost guttural undertones are almost omnipresent. But combined with her vivacity as a performer — an operatically scaled physical embodiment of the music — Robison's athleticism created high modernist drama.
The rest of the program stayed in France. Albert Roussel's “Joueurs de flûte,” the opener, was precisely lush, but Robison's uniform sound forestalled any mercuriality. Her theatricality, though, sold her solo turn on Debussy's familiar “Syrinx” (as well as an encore, the “Volière” from Saint-Saëns' “Carnival of the Animals”).
Robison and Jumppanen balanced Boulez's tough eloquence with the winsome neoclassicism of Francis Poulenc's 1957 Flute Sonata, given a mood-perfect reading. Alongside the beauty and wit, the context brought out at least a hint of Poulenc's parallel postwar reckoning: In the repeated motives always turning down new sidestreets, the phrases circling back on themselves like pocket variations, one could almost hear Poulenc rewinding the tape of his era over and over, waiting for the ending to change.