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Monday, March 23, 2015

Happy Birthday, Pierre Boulez!

The super conductor turns 90. Here is a list of his best recordings.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Pierre Boulez.
"I love to conduct but I feel that it is no longer necessary."--Pierre Boulez

The great Pierre Boulez turns 90 years old today and we would like to celebrate with a list of the composer-conductor's greatest efforts on disc. Boulez is a composer first, a creator of new traditions and a breaker of old ones. His early music spawned the sound of the second half of the 20th century, his later works mark his status as an original thinker and tireless seeker.

Boulez belongs to a tradition of great composers who are also skilled conductors of other composers' music. Although he focused his recording career on the 20th century, he also led works by Handel (!) Mahler and Wagner in a long discography that spans two record labels and two continents. He has the capacity to draw translucent performances from any ensemble. Here are ten memorable and reccommended examples of Boulez on the podium. No particular order or anything.

Varese: Orchestral Works (New York Philharmonic/Ensemble InterContemperain)
This was Boulez' first recording of the orchestral music of Edgar Varése, an iconoclastic composer whose work was a crucial influence on Boulez himself. It is also the most important recording the composer made in his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic and the Ensemble InterContemperain, which he founded in 1876 at the French music think tank IRCAM.

Mahler: Symphony No. 6 and 7 (Vienna Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestra, respectively)
The start of the Boulez Mahler cycle on DG, recorded over the next ten years with an international roster of orchestras. This Sixth is a vicious beast, with the Vienna players pounding down the road to tragedy with all the abandon of a Cormac McCarthy novel. The Seventh features a no-nonsense modernist approach and a heroic performance by the Cleveland players.

Bruckner Symphony No. 8 (Vienna Philharmonic)
Boulez and Bruckner seem like an odd combination, but the composer shows how Bruckner, long labelled a Romantic is actually a look forward to the ascetic minimalism of Philip Glass and John Adams. In other words, this performance of the Eighth (in the Haas edition) is revelatory. The slow movement is amazing, but all four movements coalesce here, with gorgeous playing from the Vienna forces.

Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger (Ensemble InterContemperain)
A meeting of modern musical minds. This 1984 disc is actually a hybrid, with Boulez conducting the Ensemble InterContemperain on three tracks and FZ playing the rest on his Synclavier (a type of digital sampling keyboard popular in the 1980s.)

"Analysis is merely a preliminary stage, a preparation. An interpretation is not a demonstration. I don't demonstrate vacuum cleaners. You first have to have clear ideas. After that you can be spontaneous. True spontaneity comes only after analysis."--Pierre Boulez

Szymanowski: Violin Concerto, Symphony No. 3
This very late Boulez recording features the music of Karel Szymanowski, a Polish composer whose music straddles the 20th century and the very last gasp of Romanticism. Gorgeous solo playing from Christian Tetzlaff and the culmination of Boulez' 20-year partnership with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Wagner: Parsifal (Bayreuth Festival, 1971)
Boulez was picked by Wieland Wagner to take over the leadership of his legendary production of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, following the death of Hans Knappertsbusch. His radical approach (the performance is an hour shorter than most recordings of this opera) yielded marvelous results, allowing the listener to hear the connection between Wagnerism and Impressionism. This recording is available on CD and LP but is perpetually out of print.

Debussy: Nocturnes/Jeux/La Mer (Cleveland Orchestra)
This award-winning recording shows the fruits of the long marriage between Boulez and the superb Cleveland Orchestra. Clean, incisive textures pervade the performance, creating a textbook reading that is essential listening for anyone trying to understand these elusive scores.

Ravel: Daphnis et Chlôe (complete score) (Berlin Philharmonic)
The epic Ravel ballet gets a deluxe treatment from Boulez and the Berlin forces, complete with a wordless chorus at key moments. This is an epic recording that opens up the rich details of this complicated score.

Webern Orchestral Works I-III (Various orchestras)
Anton Webern didn't write much music, but he remains one of the most influential composers of the early 20th century. On these three discs, Boulez surveys the composer's output from early Romantic works like Im Sommerwind to aphoristic 12-tone exercises like the seven-minute Variations for Orchestra.

Berg: Lulu (Orchestra de l'Opera de Paris)
When the composer Alban Berg died, he left his opera Lulu as a two-act torso. This 1986 recording with Theresa Stratas in the title role preserves the first performances of the complete three-act Lulu, the tale of a femme fatale who destroys every person in her path.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.