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Pierre Boulez: Boulez conducts Schoenberg I & II

img  Tobias Fischer

In 1952, the year after Arnold Schoenberg had died, Pierre Boulez – at the time equally hailed and despised as the most ambitious and obnoxious composer of his generation respectively - published one of the most controversial articles in 20th century music. Dryly entitled „Schoenberg est mort“ („Schoenberg is dead“), the piece did acknowledge some of his renowned Austrian colleague's achievements, including the renouncement of repetition, pioneering of sound as melody and the use of a new set of fresh-sounding intervals. Foremost, however, it constituted a scathing criticism of his refusal to liberate his music from archaic forms and the chains of classicism. Schoenberg, Boulez attested, had hit on monumental, paradigmatic ideas, but refused to follow through. His work promised new experiences but failed to deliver them in the necessary new containers. Form and function, according to Boulez's new doctrine, could not be separated and over the next decade, he would go on to enforce this union with a fervour, radicalism and, if one may believe some of the statements made by those who experienced him at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, outright intolerance towards dissenting opinion that made Svhoenberg seem like a friendly father figure in comparison.

Needless to say, Boulez would eventually, as any revolutionary, be faced with the expiry date of his own vision. As a founder and director of the prestigious French center for sonic research IRCAM, he did lead the institute to international fame in the early years, but would eventually come to be regarded as a man of the past when he failed to recognise the potential of micro-computers (as they were called at the time) for music production. His career as composer, meanwhile, which had gotten off to a fulminate start with at least three era-defining works, „Sinfonie X“, „Structures, book I“ and „Le marteau sans maître“ between 1950 and 1957, was increasingly relegated to second tier by his prestige as a conductor. The sort of modesty and relativity his continuous immersion into the works of others must by default have provided him with, made him renege from some of his most strident comments as a student and aspiring artist, including the Schoenberg est mort statements. The article had been misinterpreted, he argued in 2005, all he had wanted to convey was the need to continue pushing forward rather than casting the testament of the second viennese school in iron. It was a rather inconvincing apology, if at all, but it did point to the fact that Boulez had arrived at a more lucid and sober perspective on Schoenberg – and that he no longer considered the latter's work as obsolete.

To those who had followed his career over the years, the confession merely represented the official confirmation of a subtle tendency which had already begun to manifest itself decades ago, that of Boulez documenting and re-visiting all but the entire Schoenberg-oeuvre over the course of his career. The material collected on these two classical box sets, offered at a buy-me-or-shame-on-you-price, was culled from a variety of sessions between 1974 and 86 and only ends in the 90s because Boulez would then continue recording exclusively for Deutsche Grammophon, thereby putting the material out of Sony's reach. And although they don't offer the same kind of completeness as his Webern-set on DG – which compiles every note ever composed by Schoenberg's devoted pupil, including a plethora of „unofficial“ pieces and studies – these eleven CDs are almost as representative as any  „best of“. Roughly delineated into a set of chambermusical works – Schoenberg I, which includes, among others, both the string-sextet- and orchestral version of „Verklärte Nacht“, the first of the two „Chamber Symphonies“ and his signature work, „Pierrot Lunaire“ – as well as a collection of choral- and operatic pieces – Schoenberg II, which contains the magisterial sound inebriation of the „Gurrelieder“ and the incomplete masterpiece „Moses und Aron“ – this is perhaps the most comprehensive introduction to Schoenberg's work currently available on the market.

The fact that, essentially, it is a typical repackaging affair to boot, with various contributions having already featured on previous editions, is besides the point, as the time between different sessions and the differing locations actually working to the set's advantage. There's a full ten years between the string orchestra transcription of „Verklärte Nacht“ recorded by famed Glenn Gould producer Andrew Kazdin in 1973, on the one hand, and the far more intimate original edit, interpreted by Boulez's very own Ensemble Intercontemporain on the other - and it is exactly these breaks in continuity which, summed up over the duration of the entire release, add up to a sort of temporal objectivity. So, too, does the involvement of a staggering variety of ensembles, soloists and actors: „Pierrot Lunaire“, perhaps most strikingly, features Daniel Barenboim on piano and Pinchas Zuckerman on both violin and viola, a lot of the choral textures were realised in unison with the BBC singers and Jessye Norman makes a brief appearance on „Lied der Waldtaube“. And yet, the music is always held to be more important than the actors, with the booklet notes frequently withholding the exact line-up of a particular interpretation.

Even Boulez himself is never a domineering figure here. It is one of the most remarkable feats of his oeuvre that he started out as one of the most egocentrical and self-indulgent characters on the scene and ended up being a conductor whose main motive has always been to infuse the score at hand with utmost clarity. This is immediately apparent in the monolithic „Moses und Aron“, an entire opera built from a single fundamental tone row, which remains perfectly listenable and distinct despite the absence of visual cues. But it is equally true for his treatment of the chambermusical repertory, which might well have been performed without someone tapping the baton, but is decisively streamlined by his presence. Which is why the Serenade op. 24 is the key moment of these two box sets. The way in which Boulez not just aligns the different voices into a free-flowing groove, but also renders each instrumental part transparent and, thanks to a spatial separation in the recording phase, almost threedimensionally distinct, imbues the music both with the very cinematic wideness and intimacy it needs to fully blossom. The Suite op 29, both in terms of instrumentation and approach a similar work (not, however to Boulez, who did record the piece, but nonetheless acidically castigated its neoclassical aspirations after the fact), benefits in equal measure, what could be a mess of intertwined ideas attaining a succinct and rapturous flow.

What one quickly realises, however, and this is perhaps the greatest success of Boulez as a conductor, is that part of this transparency and fluency is already inherent to the score. The Serenade, with its deliberate use of schmaltz and pusta and its ragged folk-touch – instruments include mandolin and guitar, among others – conjures up images of Schoenberg's youth, when he would play the cello for fun in an ensemble of befriended artists. And in the  Suite, the notion of thematic development is carried through in a maelstrom of organically interrelated and yet exactly outlined sections, including, in the third movement, a long, meditative passage for solo piano. One should never forget that, just as with Webern and Berg, who were, despite the public's general disapproval of their experimental vocabulary, widely praised for their capacities as editors and transcribers of classic material, arrangements and instrumentation meant the world to Schoenberg. In a way, one could argue that he was among the first sound artists in the history of Western music – a feat openly acknowledged by the famous third of his five pieces for orchestra - constantly exploring the relationship between timbre, harmony, pitch and thematic content.

Forget his provocative and irritable essays, therefore, forget the chauvinism, forget his much-publicised and over-sensitive public exchange with his supporter Thomas Mann, forget even the stern surface of his dodecaphonic work: Behind his veneer of intellectual ambition hid a man whose very aim it was always to keep his listeners glued to their seat and make them feel, not drily analyse, his music. In this, he was remarkably similar to Pierre Boulez, whose work always intended to bring the music closer to the audience rather than alienate them from each other. Who knows, given the chance, they could even have been friends.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Sony Classical

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