Box-Set Bonanza

Box-Set Bonanza

Rosen is consistently superb in modern-era repertoire. His traversal of Debussy’s 1915 Etudes is one of the cycle’s first recordings, and remains a benchmark for how this work—the composer’s late venture into a kind of proto-neoclassicism drier and harder-edged than his dreamier Impressionist pastels—should be played, no doubt partly because of Rosen’s predilection for purity and clarity over sensuous allure. In the final etude, with its bounding rhythms and rapidly punched-out chords, Rosen is supreme: no one has ever matched him here, though by now there are dozens of competing recordings. He is equally exemplary in Stravinsky’s neoclassic mid-1920s Sonata and Serenade in A. These marvelous works, so original in their use of the instrument, with their sec articulations and oddly disjunct arpeggios, have never been better served. Here, as in the Debussy Etudes, Rosen sets the standard by which all future recordings must be measured.

Rosen’s ventures into more adventurous territory are also boldly explorative and again standard-setting. In Elliott Carter’s powerful 1945 Piano Sonata, in Anton Webern’s gem-like Piano Variations, in the prismatic intricacies of Pierre Boulez’s First and Third Piano Sonatas, Rosen is superlative. Schubert, Chopin, and Schumann, however, reveal his limitations. Lacking a natural sympathy for Romantic effusion, his imposing intellect and pristine technique aren’t enough to get inside this music. His perfunctory and ruthlessly rushed playing of Schubert’s late A Major Piano Sonata, for example, has merely to be heard after the immeasurably superior contemporaneous recording by Rudolf Serkin to disqualify it. But what artist is convincing in everything he attempts? Rosen does so very much so very well that we can easily disregard his lesser efforts while delighting in his many superlative ones. 

Pierre Boulez: 20th Century
This compendium of Boulez’s recordings of the past three decades (from Deutsche Grammophon plus a few from Decca) celebrates his achievement as an exceptionally gifted conductor of modern music (including his own). Its 44 CDs encompass 154 works (three of them complete operas) by 13 composers performed by great orchestras (and some smaller ensembles) around the world, and such is its scope, its sonic superiority, the polish and penetration of its performances, and the centrality of the composers on it, that Pierre Boulez: 20th Century offers a plausible conspectus of the entire modern-era orchestral repertoire.

Boulez repeatedly elicits wondrous clarity and precision as well as ravishing beauty of sound from his players. He’s been criticized for a certain emotional detachment from and disinterest in the drama or mystery that his meticulous accuracy and focus on detail are said to result in, but this defect is only occasionally in evidence. Indeed he can be quite fierce in the energies he releases in his players, though he is always “in control.” Again and again his intelligence, scrupulous fidelity to the score, and judicious shaping and clarifying of the most intricate and exploratory modern music elucidate the most bewildering complexities, while at the same time adding a freshness and excitement both inviting and revelatory.

There are a multitude of magnificent performances on this set. Two are seldom-performed early works of Bela Bartok: the one-act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, and the 1912 Four Pieces for Orchestra. Boulez revels in their sumptuous and brilliantly inventive orchestral panoply, their forlorn grandeur, their mystery and (in Bluebeard) the music’s darkness and despair. He’s equally probing and dramatic in his (first-ever complete) recording of Alban Berg’s lurid Lulu as well as the separate orchestral suite drawn from the opera. His tempos in the suite are brisk but he makes this chromatic, tormented, expressionist lament as bleak, sad, tender, and haunting as a graveyard of murdered children. And in his premiere recording of Harrison Birtwistle’s 1972 orchestral masterpiece, The Triumph of Time, he is flat-out stupendous. Unrelentingly dark, this dense, granitic, implacable, slow-moving processional, from which primal musical ideas emerge and subside, grinds on and on, enacting the path of all-destroying Time. Boulez finds the emotional meaning in its tectonic violence and responds accordingly: nothing “detached” or merely “analytical” here!

As you’d expect, Boulez is superb with his French heritage—Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen, Varese—and brings unmatched authority to his own music. As a composer Boulez has been called abstruse and recondite, but these recordings reveal just the opposite: his infatuation with gorgeous timbral combinations, some with the spare textures and entranced suggestiveness of Japanese line drawings, others profusely elaborated with prismatic glitterings, maze-like superimpositions, dragonfly-darting inflections, florid vocal lines, a whole gamelan of percussive plinkings and clatterings.

Schoenberg marks a strong contrast with the hedonic French tradition, but here too Boulez is supreme. No one matches him in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, a cycle of 21 brief, garish, moon-drunk, self-mocking poems, with a five-instrument chamber group accompanying the half-sung, half-spoken text. The recording is preternaturally clear and immediate; every subtlety and shading of phrase, filigree, or attack comes through with you-are-there vividness.

Boulez and Stravinsky are also a good match. Both men combine exalted craftsmanship with bold invention, color, and intense but highly stylized (or “ritualized”) emotion that shuns overt sentiment and masks rather than reveals intimacy or personal feeling. As many times as the hugely popular early ballets have been preserved in recordings, those by Boulez yet stand out as among the best. Even better are his readings of the Messiaen-ish 1920 Symphonies of Winds, the 1930 Symphony of Psalms, and the 1945 Symphony in Three Movements, the last with its spiky rhythms articulated with cut-glass perfection.

One last example: the ideal match-up of Boulez conducting Webern. Never have the austerity and concentration of these reticent sonic ideographs been more scrupulously or lovingly realized.

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