Boulez
Pli selon Pli
Christine Schäfer (soprano)

Ensemble Intercontemporain
Pierre Boulez

Recorded January and February 2001 at Cité de la musique, Paris
CD No: DG 471 344-2
Duration:
Reviewed: October 2002
Over thirty years elapsed from the time of Pierre Boulez’s first thoughts of a “Portrait of Mallarmé” (as Pli selon Pli is subtitled) to when the work reached its final form in 1989. One hesitates, however, to call any version of any Boulez work definitive in any way, since he constantly re-thinks and modifies his thoughts.
Whatever the future may hold for the piece, this Deutsche Grammophon recording stands as a model for how the composer sees his composition at the present time. There are, in fact, two previous recordings – on Sony (1969) and on Erato (1981) – both with BBC forces and which, of course, represent Pli selon Pli at interim stages of its development. Comparative listening is fascinating, with the earliest being the driest, most taut of the three.
’Luxuriant’ would hardly be an apt word to describe the latest rendition but it is by far the most confidently played and opulently recorded. Boulez is also a mite more leisurely in his direction, allowing the myriad details of scoring to register in a more revealing way.
There are five movements, each with different instrumental requirements. In the opening (’Don’) and closing (’Tombeau’) sections, the voice is hardly present – though significant when it is – whilst the three Improvisations feature settings of Mallarmé’s poems. The idea of ’setting’ a text, however, in the conventional sense, is not adopted here. Rather, the soprano is an integral part of the instrumental fabric and only rarely are specific words or phrases ’illustrated’ musically in the traditional manner.
Boulez’s music is difficult to pigeonhole. His works inhabit their own special soundworld and it is always incautious to cite precedents. In the case of Pli selon Pli, each movement is characterised by a different sonority, with percussion invariably to the fore. Perhaps some of the chattering writing for xylophones and other tuned percussion reminds one of Messiaen, and the use of a welter of unpitched instruments might suggest Varèse, but one would hesitate to declare for certain that these were conscious models.
The opening movement – ’Don’ (gift) – commences with a startling loud chord and finds abrupt changes of colour, flickers of sound and phrases passed from one instrument – or group of instruments – to another. As the movement progresses, the voice utters odd words – meaningless in terms of syntax – but nevertheless functioning as an instrumental timbre in its own right. Along with the last movement (’Tombeau’), ’Don’ uses the largest ensemble, predictably constituted in an atypical way. Winds and percussion predominate, with ’extra’ instruments such as double bass, trombone, and saxophones. Three harps, mandolin and guitar are added to two pianos to form a plucked/struck string group. The customary string section is not used for lyrical, cantabile melodies, but rather for sounds such as tremolos ’snapped’ pizzicati and other quasi-percussive effects. Throughout, Boulez’s orchestration is extraordinarily inventive, with sometimes a completely different timbre between one phrase – or even note – and the next.
The three Improvisations that follow each contain a complete poem and different instrumental groupings are required. In Improvisation I, the mood is uneasy and brooding, with various swellings on the brass adding to a sense of foreboding. The text tells of a ’swan of former times’ and the muttering of unpitched percussion adds to the sense of disquiet.
Chilly vibraphone, piano and bells open Improvisation II, and it is interesting to note that Boulez’s use of bells does not for a second suggest any religious connotation. On the contrary, their combination with other metal percussion creates for a unique sonority – quite peculiar to itself. The connection between words and music, as suggested earlier, is not so much one of the latter accompanying the former, rather the two become fused in the composer’s intention to provide a ’portrait’ of the poet and the poems.
The third and longest of the Improvisations sees the text initially elongated, with the words barely discernible. Gradually the vocal writing becomes more florid, and the striking and sudden changes of texture alternate from the delicate to the alarming. As the movement draws to its close, the text is repeated in note-lengths of ever-increasing duration.
In ’Tombeau’, the instruments are once again to the fore. Initially meditative and ruminative in character, there is more legato and sustained expression – almost, perhaps an instrumental reflection (meditation would be too docile a term) on what has gone before. The music becomes more agitated by degrees, and one might note at this point – as, indeed, throughout the performance – the stunning virtuosity of the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Every player is exposed and is, in effect, a soloist in his or her own right and Boulez himself has described the piece as “chamber music, though on a large scale”.
In the final pages, the singer has a stratospheric, even desperate phrase – “Un peu profond ruisseau calomnié la mort” (a trickling stream we vilify as death). The final word (“mort”) is hoarsely whispered and is followed by a chord which reminds us of the very opening of the work.
Playing and recording are beyond reproach and Christine Schäfer is simply staggering, making even the most tortuous of lines sound easeful and conveying expression in a way in which her predecessors on disc were unable to do. DG has done Boulez proud with this issue – exemplary presentation, informative notes and an interview with Boulez, but it is sad to reflect that this is likely to be one of the last releases on DG’s 20/21 label, which has brought lesser-known and obscure works to wider attention.
We must be grateful that Boulez has been enabled to preserve this important work in such a fine performance. The listener’s journey through Boulez’s portrait – or vision – of Mallarmé may not be easy, but it is most emphatically worthwhile and rewarding.

 

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