, March 2011
As of this writing, Pierre Boulez is 85 and showing no signs of flagging. An interview with him in the October 2010 issue of Gramophone shows him to be as prickly and iconoclastic as ever. For myself, I’ve been able to separate his work as a conductor, which I much admire, from his work as a composer, which I don’t. Obviously he too has been able to compartmentalize the two activities, for he continues to lead performances of mainstream repertoire by composers he’s been critical of on philosophical grounds. Still, it strikes me as a little gutsy to program three composers for the opening concert of the 2008 Salzburg Festival who were not only of the 20th century but, even more impolitic, who were not Austrian. I mean even Nikolaus Harnoncourt, another iconoclast, had the deference to present a program of Josef Strauss and works by Schubert, one of them arranged by Webern—Viennese all three—for the 2009 opening gala. Oh well, that’s Boulez for you.
None of this is to gainsay the performances on this DVD, all of which are excellent. Barenboim and Boulez of course collaborated in Bartók’s First Piano Concerto for EMI back in 1967 with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. But that was 45 years ago, and if today there’s a bit less stab and bite to their reading of the score than there was back then, what has really changed even more, I think, is us and how we have come to assimilate Bartók into the fold. The music no longer shocks as it once did. And as I watched and listened to this performance, I had to wonder to myself, have Boulez and Barenboim mellowed and softened somewhat in their approach, or was that eerie “night music” of the second movement always the composer’s idea of a nocturne? The “three Bs”—Bartók, Barenboim, and Boulez—cast quite a hypnotic spell.
For Stravinsky’s Firebird, Boulez gives us the same 1910 version of the score he recorded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1991 for Sony. His performance of the work here with the Vienna Philharmonic, if perhaps not quite as atmospheric and mysterious in the opening pages as I would have liked, is high on energy and sharply delineated in contrasts between the orchestra’s sections, lending the piece a great deal of color and dramatic thrust.
Boulez carries through the sharply etched coloristic effects in the Valses nobles et sentimentales, so that what we hear (and see) is a Ravel closer in spirit and style to the neoclassicism of Stravinsky than to the Impressionism of Debussy, a point of view I believe Boulez has consistently emphasized in his Ravel readings and with which I happen to agree wholeheartedly.
If you happened to be in Salzburg at the end of July 2008, and you got to attend the festival’s opening concert, you will no doubt want this DVD as a memento. For the rest of us stay-at-homes, this DVD is the next best thing to having been there, and allows us to enjoy the experience vicariously.