Magazine article Gramophone

Raiding the Archives

Magazine article Gramophone

Raiding the Archives

Article excerpt

In his eulogy on the death of the conductor-composer Roger Desormiere in 1963, Pierre Boulez cited the older man's stated goal: 'extreme sobriety ... [but] sobriety of gesture does not mean a failure to carry expressiveness to its highest pitch, nor a lack of strength or dash.'

What this means in practice for the Paris Wozzeck of 1963--his first recording with CBS/Sony, and his operatic debut!--is a dissection of the score's anatomy at the expense of its pathos, only exaggerated by the kind of multitrack-mono recording more associated with Sgt Pepper than the Sergeant Major. The succeeding discs of Messiaen (Et exspecto) and Berlioz (the Symphonie fantastique/Lelio diptych) try out unusual perspectives for their singular instrumentations: like many musicians, Boulez seems to be less interested in the final, edited package than in how to get there. It's possible both to understand why he was reluctant for his experimental reading of Beethoven's Fifth to see the light of day again, and also to admire its deconstructed weirdness: Klemperer meets Foucault, with an instrumental balance as naked and exposed as the formal conception is monumental.

Boulez the conductor remakes Brecht's dictum that art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it, just as Boulez the composer breaks the mirror with Le marteau sans maitre and holds up the fragments to our perplexed enchantment. To confuse that determination with alienation is to grossly misunderstand both musician and playwright: Boulez has often been accused of a deracinated 'objectivity' holding the artwork at arm's length, because he conducts as a composer does, with the score the first and foremost source of information, and yet time and again this box shows how he can deliver a 'big' performance. You can almost see the smile on Boulez's face as William Vacchiano, longtime Principal Trumpet of the NYPO, channels his inner Miles Davis on die top line of the Poem of Ecstasy, yet note the pains he takes to ensure the bell pierces its climactic din. So what, so Scriabin? Try the full-blooded relish of Falla's Three-Cornered Hat (complete, for once). In the control room was Andrew Kazdin, to whom Boulez once paid tribute as 'the best producer I ever had': he had Kazdin accompany him to Bayreuth for The Ring.

The Bayreuth invitation had been issued by Wieland Wagner, who was as influential on Boulez's music-making as Desormiere --'I would have followed him anywhere,' Boulez said. All the Wagner recordings here are fascinating--including a Meistersinger Prelude of archaic grandeur and gleeful precision--but the prize is a Wesendonck-Lieder with one of his favourite singers, Yvonne Minton, his accompaniment so relaxed that she is free to give fullest expression to the Tristan-esque yearning of the songs. His work with singers is a highlight of the set as a whole because he is the master of the line but a servant of the singer's tone, wonderfully illustrated by a mixed Ravel album including Don Quichotte a Dulcinee with Jose van Dam.

The impact of conducting Wagner can also be traced through those works he rerecorded such as the Op 6 pieces of Berg, which he has probably programmed more frequently than anyone. The 'Round-Dance' of 1984 is slightly quicker than in 1967 but the pulse is less rigid, with more point to the accents and more air around them, the kind of operatic rubato missing from his first Bayreuth Parsifal (1966-70) and expertly shaping the second (2006-08), as well as the 'operas of the mind' included here: Pelleas, Bluebeard, Die gluckliche Hand.

It's true that his Wooden Prince doesn't dance to the folky tunes of Dorati, his Daphnis is untinted by the Impressionist coloration of Ansermet. His singular foray into neo-classical Stravinsky, the suite from Pulcinella, he once called 'a toy in my hand': a tin drum compared with the composer's own jack-in-the-box. To accuse him of missing the point is missing the point: Boulez and his contemporary colleagues saw with bitterness and personal loss where nationalism had taken the previous generation, and they set out in the opposite direction. …

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