Magazine article Gramophone

Boulez's Complete Works

Magazine article Gramophone

Boulez's Complete Works

Article excerpt

Complete? Well, almost. Philip Clark evaluates the collected DG recordings of a towering figure in the music of our time

So by whose definition is this 13-CD anthology 'complete'? The front cover may proudly trumpet 'Pierre Boulez: Oeuvres Completes' but flipping the box around tells a different story. Nowhere there that magic word 'complete'. Instead, just above where we're told that the composer himself supervised this edition, you read 'Pierre Boulez: Work in Progress', which rather whiffs of a carefully chosen form of words agreed after long and pained telephone conversations between Boulez HQ and DG. Record companies like 'definitive' products, a cultural done deal ripe for the packaging. But Boulez, presumably, baulked at the notion of career retrospective, drawing a grand valedictory metaphorical double bar-line around his work.

And this wording does give Boulez plenty of wiggle-room. Airbrushed out of consideration, although readily available elsewhere on CD, are the sins of his youth. Polyphonie X was proto-Structures, Boulez's first attempt to make total serialism fly within an instrumental context. The history books invariably cite it and the work's 1951 premiere at Donaueschingen ruffled plenty of feathers. But you're not going to hear it here. And ditto an early orchestral/electronic piece Poe'sie pour pouvoir (1958) and a youthful dummy-run at what would evolve into the final section of Pli selonpli, Tombeau a la memoire du Prince Max Egon zu Furstenberg (1959).

Nor, sad to say, are there any signs of those new projects Boulez has been discussing in recent interviews. We're still waiting for Waiting for Godot: The Opera (could Boulez's cunning concept be that it'll never show up?), further instalments of his orchestral Notations and a violin/orchestral piece involving Anne-Sophie Mutter. As the great man said, work in progress. But, even if you're a got-it-all Boulez collector, there is enough new/rare material here to tempt you in. Two pieces Improvise --pour le Dr Kalmus and Unepage d'ephemeride--were recorded specifically for this edition. Boulez has opted to include a live 2010 Dmve II rather than the recording he released in 2005; meanwhile, an excellent live Livre pour cordes cut with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1992 is rescued from the historical graveyard of VHS video, and a 2007 recording of the orchestral Notations with Ensemble Modern is heard for the first time on disc. There's also a bonus disc of historical curios: the 1950 premiere of Le soleil des eaux, a notably light-on-its-pins Le marteau sans maitre from 1964 and a Sonatine featuring flautist Severino Gazzelloni and Cage's main piano man David Tudor.

But what does listening to wall-to-wall Boulez teach us about his art? If the cliches and accepted histories run deep--Boulez as revolutionary, fidgety progressive, a man always but a word away from an ideological punch-up--the myths and paranoid untruths flow ever deeper. Boulez never did set out to destroy tradition. He was no left-wing revolutionary (like Nono), nor an anarchist (like Cage). No, the shocking revelation this set forces us to confront is how aesthetically settled and refined Boulez's language had become by the mid-1960s. By the time of his 1958 orchestral piece Figures--Doubles Prismes, and certainly by the time he composed cummings is der Dichter in 1970, you broadly know what to expect of a Boulez composition. …

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