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CD Review

Pierre Boulez

  • Sur Incises (1996-98) 1
  • Messagesquisse (1976-77) 2
  • Anthèmes 2 (1997) 3
1 Soloists of the Ensemble Intercontemporain/Pierre Boulez
2 Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello
2 Ensemble de violoncelles de Paris/Pierre Boulez
3 Hae-Sun Kang, violin
Deutsche Grammophon 463475-2 66:08
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Super-solo.

For many years now, Boulez has been writing some of the most beautiful and most beautifully-made music around. I admit I don't like everything he's done – the piano sonatas, for example, have for me all the charm of a concrete sofa – but such pieces are few. Then again, my image of Boulez differs from that of many others, who picture him as a super-brain, to the exclusion of everything else. I, on the other hand, see him in the long line of French composers besotted with color and the "sensuous form" – the passion for proportion and beauty of line. One may find it hard to accept this view, usually because one confuses Boulez's writings about his music (almost always terrible, unhelpful, and pretentious) with the music itself. I recall in particular one composer-supplied program note to a Cleveland Orchestra performance of Pli selon pli in which he compared the music to Brownian motion. If you found yourself in a kind mood, you'd call it poetry. If you actually know what "Brownian motion" means, you'd more likely call it meadowmuffins. The latter for me. I became so angry at this flummery that the program note actually got in the way of my hearing the music. It took me decades before I came around to this piece, and then only because I'd heard other Boulez works without his critical "help" in the meantime.

All the works on this program began as solo pieces: Sur Incises as a work for solo piano; Anthès 2 for solo violin; Messagesquisse for solo cello. Two of them are further linked through their dedication to one of the great musical patrons, the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher. I haven't heard any of the originals, but my reactions to the CD program range from unqualified wow to unqualified wow. Each one of these works re-imagines the relation between solo and ensemble.

However, one thing I knew after a couple of sentences: ignore the liner notes by Wolfgang Fink, typical European self-absorbed windbaggery, which aims not to illuminate the pieces, but to show the smarts of the writer (it fails). Moreover, it's plain bad writing. Some small examples will suffice:

Virtual infinity, music apparently without beginning or end or, in the wider context of the history of ideas, the open-endedness of the modern work of art: this is the radical conclusion that Pierre Boulez has drawn from atonality and from static and asymmetrical rhythm and metre in the wake of Webern, Stravinsky and Messiaen. In order to illustrate this fundamental change of attitude, he has suggested the image of a labyrinth – a structure involving ideas and experiences which, unlike the traditionally unambiguous Euclidean language of forms, acknowledges new convolutions and directions whose feasibility demands to be discovered and patiently explored.

Of course, the passage means very little other than the writer has substituted vocabulary for thought (does the writer know what the phrase "Euclidean language of forms" means, for example? If so, I suspect he may be the only one), but it does offer the advantage that you needn't hear the pieces in question to come up with the prose. Later on, he says the "music unfolds like a prism." As far as I know, prisms neither fold nor unfold. The notes also include Fink's interview with Boulez. It's a sad state of affairs when Boulez is the clearest writer in the room.

Anthèmes 2, one of the Sacher works, gave me the most problems, but not because of the music, quite straightforward and very lovely. It seems that the violinist plays against itself in some sort of combination of recording and live electronic wizardry, but the details are lost in Fink's description. If anyone can untangle the snarl, I'd be grateful to know exactly what goes on. At any rate, it sounds a lot less intellectually formidable than Fink's description: like a solo violin against a violin ensemble in some super-echo chamber. The work consists of an introduction and six movements, the last one subdivided into three. Most of it comes across as brilliant variations on a small kit of musical ideas. The last movement seems different somehow, but without a score I can't tell whether Boulez has inserted new material. It may well turn out as variations more complicated than my ear can take in. At the end of each movement come passages of quiet slides and harmonics (marked "libre"). Boulez compares the structure to "strophes." As you can tell, I think "theme-and-variation" more revealing of what goes on, but I do take the composer's point. The "libre" passages come across as other-worldly benedictions, capping their movements. The composer operates at a peak of invention just for the different string sounds alone he comes up with.

The oldest piece on the program, Messagesquisse, also shows the most traditional relation between soloist and ensemble. In this case, a cello soloist takes the lead of a cello ensemble. As opposed to Anthèmes 2, where one distinguishes the electronically-enhanced soloist from the electronically-realized ensemble only occasionally, the Messagesquisse solo behaves closer to the lead of, say, a Bach violin concerto – that is, not quite a star, but certainly first among equals. Boulez mentions that, aside from the "Sacher" theme (E Flat Major, A, C, B, E, D; E Flat Major = S and B = H in the German notational system, while R = re = D in the French system), he got two particular points of inspiration. Knowing that Rostropovich would première the work, he instantly thought "virtuosity," which led him to thoughts of Paganini. He quotes nothing from that composer, but he does use Paganini's favorite device of moto perpetuo. He also thought of the quick and quirky finale to the Chopin B Flat Major sonata and provides one of his own. One would think that all those cellos would produce a thick, tubby sound, but Boulez's rhythmic and contrapuntal virtuosity keep the music lively and athletic. Furthermore, Boulez creates a beautiful, yet idiosyncratic rhetorical structure. In terms of minutes alone, the slow music fills more time than the fast, yet the music impresses at least me as a piece that just whips along, with only the occasional pause to catch one's breath.

As good as the preceding are (and they're wonderful), Sur Incises knocks me out. Considered solely as a piece of composing, it's the work of a master. The ensemble consists of three pianos, three harps, and three percussion players. You'd think that three pianos all by themselves would turn any texture to mud or to a Spector-like wall o' sound. Boulez, however, is characteristically mad on counterpoint and on linear independence. He doesn't like to waste notes. He wants you to hear everything. Some of the clarity comes from Boulez's placement of the pianos (roughly: left, right, and center), but that contributes minimally. I have no idea how he does the rest of it, but he pulls it off and writes powerful music besides. It's not all brainwork. Indeed, the piece that kept coming to mind – without Boulez stealing anything – was the Bartók Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Furthermore, as I went back and re-listened to the two other works, I began to hear echoes of Bartók and Stravinsky. Boulez himself points out the inspiration of Stravinsky's Les Noces, but I think of Boulez's Sur Incises as fundamentally different. Stravinsky explores mass of sound applied to ostinato: the music almost stands still, with sections sharply cut from one another. Boulez links one idea to another: the music constantly transforms, pivoting from one motific shape to another related one – a kind of structural "enharmonic" shift.

Boulez, a virtuosic orchestrator, comes up with an ensemble whose parts are subtly distinctive. The pluck of the harps obviously relates to the "harp" color of the piano. The two instrument types differ in the nature of their attack. On the other hand, the tap of the tuned percussion relates to the keyboard attack, while the color differs. The piece falls into two movements, played without a break. The first movement opens very much like several Bartók works – in a kind of stately funk, as ideas are brooded over and deliberated on. About a third of the way in, the music suddenly shoots out of a gun, as we see these ideas fly by maybe four times as fast. The fast music comprises the meat of the movement, but roughly four minutes from the end it grinds into torpor, all the while attempting to return to speed.

The second movement breaks out with rapid lines. It's even more Bartókian than the first, in the sense that one hears lots of imitation going on among the three pianos, although, again, you wouldn't mistake Boulez for Bartók. For one thing, the music moves along in spurts, with periods for catching your breath. It's also chock-full of cadenzas. Apparently, each of the pianists get at least one cadenza of his own and even, according to the liner notes, competes against the other two. The percussion and harp ensembles also get to shine in cadenza-like passages, rhythmically very free, at any rate.

The performers are, as my teen-aged cousin would say, "totally awesome," there apparently being no spectrum of awesomeness. As you can probably tell, every piece on the program demands wonderful musicians working at the top of their game. Boulez himself leads Sur Incises, an account that left my heart racing and my mouth gaping. Almost no matter how complicated the interaction between the three sets of instruments gets, one still hears clear interaction. Of course, it will take me more than one sitting to begin to get this piece as it deserves to be got, but the performance won't hinder me. Indeed, this performance (as every other on the disc) makes a strong case for the beauty of Boulez's music.

It's hard for me to single out violinist Hae-Sun Kang's contribution, because I can't distinguish her from her electronic alter egos. Nevertheless, the "realization" of Anthèmes 2 is gorgeous. She must have had at least something to do with that. Messagesquisse stands as the most conventional work on the program, and thus the easiest to criticize. The ensemble cellists and the soloist have their musical antennae vibrating in sensitive accord. One is conscious not of complicated music, but of profound conversation among the forces – Beaux-Arts-quality chamber playing.

DG has wrapped Boulez in a superior package and lavished the recording with great sound. As hard as these works must be to play, solving the recording problems they present must be nightmarish. Maybe these works will find better recordings, but you will have to show me.

Copyright © 2004, Steve Schwartz