Boulez
Rituel in memoriam Maderna
Notations – I-IV & VII
Figures-Doubles-Prismes
Orchestre National de Lyon
David Robertson

Recorded in September 2002 in the Auditorium, Lyons
CD No: NAÏVE MO 782163
Duration:
Reviewed: June 2003
Pierre Boulez’s twelve Notations date back to 1945. They are, in their original versions for piano solo, his earliest published pieces. Since the late 1970s, the composer has been re-working them and expanding their possibilities for an extremely large and virtuoso orchestra. The five orchestral Notations to date form the centrepiece of this excellent Naïve release.
To consider these pieces as mere orchestral transcriptions of piano music is quite wrong, since Boulez has been investigating the compositional possibilities inherent or implied in his originals. For instance, Notations VII now lasts nearly 7 minutes; the original, as played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard on DG, takes a mere 1’24".
Like the majority of Boulez’s works, the orchestral Notations must be considered ’work in progress’. It is to be hoped that he will complete the remaining seven pieces and, in due course, record the whole set.
In the meantime, these fantastic, glittering scores may be enjoyed in these fine readings from David Robertson and his Orchestre National de Lyon, who execute the fearsome demands with seeming nonchalance. The mood of this music veers almost maniacally from one piece to the next – from the frenzied IV and II (the latter concluding the group) to moments of almost wistful nostalgia and half-veiled impressionism. In the more robust pieces, there is a tremendous sense of forward propulsion, rhythmic drive and, yes, even a sense of humour. Robertson captures this variety extremely well, but there is competition on CD from the Vienna Philharmonic under Abbado (DG) in a mixed programme from the “Wien Modern” series, recorded live. This does not include Notations VII, which was not completed then: anyone who relishes the idea of hearing Boulez in context with his near-contemporaries – Ligeti, Nono and Rihm – will be rewarded by exhilarating performances which, where appropriate, sound even more hysterical than Robertson’s.
Both are preferable to Barenboim on Erato, whose somewhat lumpy direction elicits leaden playing from Orchestre de Paris in Notations I-IV. Notations VII appears in isolation on a Teldec CD from Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony, a curious coupling of La Mer and The Rite of Spring.
On Erato, Notations I-IV are coupled with Barenboim conducting Rituel in memoriam Maderna – but in a manner that is much too comfortable for Boulez’s austere conception devised as a musical memorial for his friend and fellow composer/conductor Bruno Maderna who died in 1973. This is extraordinary music – at once expressive yet ceremonial. It has a kind of processional quality, emphasised by the use of various gongs – which lend the sonority more than a hint of the Orient – and frequent ticking percussion, suggesting time itself ebbing away. From the plaintive opening oboe solo to the hushed conclusion with isolated sounds, Robertson directs an intense and moving performance.
Boulez’s 1976 performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Sony is more objective, less warm, and his players do not sound quite so confident as those from Lyon. Doubtless the composer will re-record this work and his approach will, inevitably, be different.
Figures-Doubles-Prismes (1963, revised 1968) is Boulez’s first major work for orchestra and, as such, its assurance is astonishing. As in all his music, the revelling in the sheer delight of sound for its own sake is a constant source of interest. However technical the working out of the musical material, it is not necessary to comprehend these intricacies – or even to be aware of them – in order to appreciate this multi-faceted score.
It shares a common feature with Rituel in that the orchestra is separated spatially and in different groups. Figures-Doubles-Prismes is also to be found under Boulez’s direction with the BBCSO on Erato. The Lyon Orchestre with David Robertson also give a good account, helped by warm and clear recorded sound.
Hitherto, much of the success of Boulez the composer has depended to a large extent on Boulez the conductor. It is good to see David Robertson, of a younger generation, taking on this music and giving such convincing performances. Indeed, I can think of no better introduction to Boulez’s orchestral works than this CD.

 

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