New Boulez CD Set Offers Portrait Of Young Firebrand

Pierre Boulez's performances from 1957 to 1967 are included in the new box set.
Performances by Pierre Boulez and other prominent artists for Le Domaine Musical are included on a new 10-CD set.

Pierre Boulez: Le Domaine Musical 1956…1967: Soloists and Orchestra of Domaine Musical, Pierre Boulez and Rudolf Albert (conductors); Orchestre du Südwestfunk de Baden-Baden, Hans Rosbaud (conductor), Yvonne Loroid, David Tudor, Alfons and Alois Kontarsky (piano), Severino Gazzeloni (flute). Universal/Accord 289 4811510 (10 CDs)

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — As Pierre Boulez turned 90 on March 26, the major classical record labels went all-out to repackage his life’s work. Almost all of it is now available on a shelf full of big boxed sets – with Deutsche Grammophon, Sony, and Warner Classics all getting in on the rush – which is great for the completist and a sad indication that Boulez’s career as a recording artist may well be history.

Boulez CD cover 350Perhaps the most interesting set of all is a 10-CD collection of recordings, released around the time of his birthday, that takes us back to nearly the beginning of Boulez’s tumultuous early days as an intellectual bomb thrower and musical style setter. It is a time machine into the not-so-distant days after World War II when serialism was taking hold in Europe, spurred in great part by Boulez’s pronouncements, but not completely assimilated by musicians and certainly not by the French musical Establishment.

Boulez founded the Domaine Musical concert series in 1953 on a shoestring in a performance space provided by Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, who ran a theater company for which Boulez was conducting incidental music.  Basically, the concerts had three objectives – exploring old music up to the time of J.S. Bach, bringing Parisian audiences up to speed on early 20th-century pioneers like Stravinsky, Debussy, Varèse, and especially the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern), and providing a platform for the newest music. (Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles had a strikingly similar agenda then; its director Lawrence Morton was a big Boulez booster).

Expanding upon a pair of boxed sets issued a few years ago, this set contains three discs devoted to then-contemporary composers with an emphasis on the French, one disc to Boulez’s own music, one disc to Stravinsky, three more for the Second Viennese School, a Boulez interview disc (in French, with full English translations in the booklet), and a new addition, a 1956 Domaine Musical concert. The pre-Bach period is represented only by two brief Gabrieli canzoni, which is just as well since Boulez abandoned that direction early on. These recordings were made for the French Vega and Adès labels, and some were issued on LP in the States by Westminster, Vox/Turnabout, and Everest in sometimes wretched pressings, so it’s good to hear them at last in these relatively smooth remasterings.

Some musicians and critics have said all along that a lot of difficult music from the 20th century was misunderstood by audiences because it was not well performed, and this set proves them right in some cases.  Remember, Boulez had very little experience as a conductor then, and there were little or no performance traditions to draw upon. Boulez himself confesses in the set’s 2005 interview that at times there was “a certain stiffness” about these early performances, that he had not yet developed the flexibility and suppleness that he would display later.

In general, the earliest performances from 1956 are the least convincing, often hampered further by bone-dry acoustics. But the learning curve goes up from the late 1950s into the 1960s; the performances are more communicative and less hermetic, and the sound improves dramatically.

Hans Rosbaud conducts works by Stravinsky and Berg.
Hans Rosbaud conducts works by Stravinsky and Berg.

There are two versions of Boulez’s new music milestone, Le marteau sans maître, here, and they illustrate how the ability of musicians to cope with this tough repertoire evolved. In the first recording, made in 1956, the musicians seem to stumble through the dark, feeling their way through the Boulezian thickets, while you can hear the increased comfort level and sureness in rhythm in the second recording from 1964, even allowing for improved sound quality. Much later, in Boulez’s fourth and last recording with Ensemble InterContemporain from 2002 (DG), there is a velvety touch in the playing and they even seem to find unsuspected rhythmic grooves.

Some of these performances have an urgency and freshness of discovery that trump other considerations. In comparing the 1964 performance of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No. 1 with Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain recording circa the 1980s (Sony), the earlier one doesn’t have the refinement in phrasing and ease of execution of the latter, but it has red-blooded, forward motion as if thrusting out into a brave new world.

A good deal of the set does not feature Boulez, but there are some performances by others not to be missed – among them, virtually anything from the experienced Hans Rosbaud and his visiting orchestra from Baden-Baden (a marvelously zesty Stravinsky Agon and powerful Berg Three Pieces for Orchestra), or Yvonne Loriod’s scorching rendering of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata and pointed account of Webern’s Variations for Piano. Henri Pousseur, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Maurizio Kagel and Boulez’s teacher Olivier Messiaen are represented, and there is a high-voltage assortment of Boulez’s Varèse at an early stage.

The Domaine Musical survived for only four years after Boulez gave it up in 1967, and the dominance of serialism as the default language of contemporary music didn’t last much longer. Yet Boulez’s other mission – to make his favorite 20th-century repertoire comprehensible to a bigger audience – did succeed, and while the other Boulez boxes display the ripened fruits of that mission, the seeds are planted in this fascinating set.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.