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Pierre Boulez: Dérive 2 – Dialogue de l’ombre double – Mémoriale – Le Marteau sans maître (*) – Anthèmes 2 – Messagesquisse
Hilary Summers (contralto), Guy Eshed (flute), Jussef Eisa (clarinet), Michael Barenboim (violin), Hassan Moataz El Molla (cello), West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez (*) (conductors)
Recording: Staatsoper Under den Linden, Berlin (April 2010) & Royal Albert Hall, London (July 2012) – 142’27
Deutsche Grammophon 479 7160 – Booklet in English, German, and French

The handsome packaging for this important release—as great an Hommage à Boulez as one could muster—mimics what Deutsche Grammophon (DG) used for its wonderful 20/21 series. That series included seminal recordings of all the works here except Mémoriale, performed by members of the composer’s own Ensemble intercontemporain. What that ensemble (and its home base, IRCAM) contributed to the development and performance of works by Boulez and his disciples is wonderfully complemented by an equally important ensemble, Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Boulez’s institutions arose out of the crumbles of World War II and the tumult of the 1960s, while Barenboim’s aims to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Politics aside, this stunning group of young players (including Barenboim’s son, Michael) proves that staggering virtuosity can and should be fostered around the world. Indeed, for lovers of Boulez, or lovers of sheer virtuosity, this is an essential new release.

Comparisons between earlier and current recordings of this repertoire are both fascinating and frustrating. For instance, between the 2005 20/21 recording of Dérive 2 and the present performance, the piece has nearly doubled in length, from 25 minutes to nearly 50. Mémoriale, Le Marteau, and Messagesquisse similarly exist in at least two different versions that have been recorded before. Boulez fans will definitely want to acquire all available recordings, while those being introduced to the composer’s music will find the present collection a fascinating overview of Boulez’s aesthetic, given excellent performances and recording quality.

For those that may shy away from Boulez’s music, Mémoriale is one of the best places to begin exploring. An easily-digested six-minute work, it encompasses the duality of Boulez’s language—alternations between still but shimmering sonorities colored by trills and vertiginously active passages—and has a prominent central E-flat that helps the listener along. Barenboim leads flutist Guy Esched—who plays flawlessly—and the eight-piece ensemble of strings and horns masterfully. If anything is lacking, it is more natural recorded sound that allows the delicately colored heterophony to be more clearly appreciated. Here, the flute is given an artifical, spotlit halo, the accompanying ensemble sounding quite far away.

The brilliant Messagesquisse, for solo cello accompanied by an ensemble of six additional cellos, is similar in its brevity and approachability. Essentially a mini-concerto, a general four-part form is easy to discern: slow introduction, fast movement, solo cadenza, rapid coda. This all transpires in about 10 minutes. Hassan Moataz El Molla, taking duties as soloist, is a solid match for the several extant recordings of the piece, especially for the variations in his tone, from wispy grace-note figures to held notes shimmering with vibrato to resin-tinged aggression. The venue change for this recording (from the boomy Royal Albert Hall to the more precise Staatsoper Unter den Linden) is welcomed—the ensemble and soloist are more evenly balanced, making the myriad coloristic effects have a more immediate impression. There are slight coordination issues in the second section (Très rapide), which, from an ensemble standpoint, is quicker, more accurate, and more exciting in Boulez’s earlier DG version (taken at a much quicker clip).

An electroacoustic work features on each disc. Structured in similar manners, Dialogue de l’ombre double (Dialogue of the Double Shadow) and Anthèmes 2, for clarinetist and violinist—respectively—complemented by IRCAM-derived live electronic processing, both pieces are fascinating studies in an instrument’s unique possibilities and the possibilities of technology. Both begin with a short introductory segment followed by six main sections. In Dialogue, those six sections are separated by “Transitions,” while in Anthèmes, the introductory segment returns after each section as a type of refrain. Both feature complicated spacial realization in live performance, and the recording here does a great job—especially in Dialogue—of mimicking through left and right stereo channels what would normally be a six-channel swirling maelstrom of sonorities.

Choosing between these renditions and prior recordings is difficult and comes down to personal choice regarding timbre of the soloist and realistic recorded sound. For my money, Michael Barenboim’s violin playing is lighter-toned and, in the final section, more wittily capricious, than Hae Sun Kang’s earlier DG recording. By contrast, I prefer Alain Damiens’ tone—more perceptively contrasting in strident versus meditative passages—to Jussef Eisa’s attractive but consistently darker, less aggressive tone.

The collection is filled out by Dérive 2, one of Boulez’s last ensemble works, and Le Marteau sans maître, one of the works of the 1950s that made solidified his status as an enfant terrible. Hilary Summers sings on the present Le Marteau as well as Boulez’s other DG recording (on the 20/21 series) and has a splendid, precise voice. This release’s close recording highlights the unusual instrumentation, including attractively pronounced fret noises from guitarist Caroline Delume. I was previously unfamiliar with the expanded version of Dérive 2, but there is much to engage here. Daniel Barenboim again conducts, and seems intent on maximum blend of timbres—sometimes it’s difficult to discern between horn, viola, and bassoon. Boulez’s earlier recording (of the shorter, earlier version) allows the different timbres jump out.

In the end, Boulez’s music will become an interesting discographical study: what to collect, which recordings are actually of the “same” pieces, and how much is a recomposition or expansion of an existing piece an interpretation in its own right. As a standalone collection, the present disc is admirable for its breadth and the mastery on display from the young performers. Boulez experts might pick and choose better recordings of this piece and that, but collectively, this is worthwhile investment, and one hopes for more excellent contemporary repertoire from Barenboim’s baton and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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