Serenade in B flat for 13 Wind Instruments, K361 (Gran Partita) Berg
Chamber Concerto for Piano, Violin and 13 Wind Instruments
Mitsuko Uchida (piano) & Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Recorded 19-21 March 2008 at IRCAM, Pompidou Centre, Paris
CD No: DECCA 478 0316 Duration: 80 minutes Reviewed: October 2008
Boulez 13 – Mozart & Berg
Reviewed by Antony Hodgson
It is good to take an original approach when marketing recorded music, but here the unconventional programming and eccentric presentation of the product leave me wondering at what particular audience this release is aimed. I suppose Mozart's use of 13 wind instruments and Alban Berg's use of a similar number to accompany a pianist and violinist makes a tenuous link, but I see no other connection. The booklet does not provide an introduction to or an analysis of the music but instead gives a five-page interview between James Jolly, the soloists and the conductor of which only just over 20 percent refers to Mozart. The two-page central spread provides an alarming black and white picture of the two soloists which is grossly exaggerated in contrast and I found that, unless viewed under a strong bright light, the lack of definition deformed the image and tricked the eye into believing that Mitsuko Uchida might have been photographed while playing the part of Caliban in Shakespeare's "The Tempest".
Having criticised the packaging I must stress that the performances are impressive – notably the exceptional detail of the recording, which is immaculately balanced while achieving an imposing weight of sound within a comfortable acoustic. The positional layout of a wind-band is not critical, although I should have preferred the bassoons to be to the right rather than the left but the natural emergence of the relevant melody instruments from within the ensemble without artificial highlighting makes the Mozart a pleasure to hear. Admirable too is Pierre Boulez’s approach to tempos – most being just on the faster side of average, but the tempos of each movement of the Mozart relates ideally to that of its companions. I was particularly glad to hear a moderate tempo adopted for the Minuets because there is an unfortunate modern habit that encourages performers to hurry such movements.
On this evidence, Boulez certainly has understanding of, and sympathy with, 18th-century music. He does not indulge in romantic foibles although he does introduce some subjective ideas that may never have arisen in Mozart's day. The most acceptable of these is a tendency to be flexible in phrasing – light hints of rubato here and there are beautifully fashioned and never disruptive. In all Boulez treats the music in a sympathetic manner.
However there are two small but consistent impositions upon the music, which seem at odds with the flowing nature of the interpretation. One is the habit of commencing the Trio sections very late (there are two in each Minuet) with the first note tending to come in at a very indeterminate point that has no rhythmic connection with the last notes of the relevant Minuet. This is not just a brief 'comma' as used by some conductors, more a surprising irregularity. I hasten to add, however, that Boulez keeps to the same tempo.
No less disturbing is the consistent use of short grace notes. The very beginning of the first movement's Allegro is made brutally blunt by this and there are worrying examples elsewhere – especially in Minuets and Trios. In general, long grace notes (appoggiaturas) are used in performances of 18th-century music unless the composer makes it absolutely clear that he intends it to be of the short, crushed variety (acciaccatura). Of contemporary conductors who disagree with this general approach, and who would side with Boulez, I can only think of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The trouble with the use of the short grace note is that it alters the shape and nature of the melody in which it appears.
Following one of the most exhilarating performances of the finale to Mozart’s seven-movement Serenade that I have encountered, the listener is plunged into the 20th-century. Forget about any supposed connection between the two works (Berg’s scoring is not identical to Mozart’s) and I also suggest that they should not be listened to immediately one after the other. Although there is but an interview in the booklet for guidance it is nevertheless most revealing and Boulez makes some very interesting and pertinent comments. He explains the form of the Berg clearly but that form has nothing to do with the logical type of construction displayed by Mozart in his Serenade.
In particular, Boulez clarifies in detail about Berg's pre-occupation with 'three': as for example in the finale where the composer insists on having the bars as multiples of three, the phrases to be in three parts and the superimposition to be in three. No doubt this is interesting as an academic study but I doubt if the listener would be aware of it. Suffice it to say that the work is in three movements: the first is a set of Variations with piano solo, the second is a palindrome with violin featured, and in the finale both instruments take part. Although the movements contrast with each other it is difficult to gather any sense of tempo – do not expect to hear a ‘sinfonia concertante' for violin and piano; these two instruments do not necessarily always take the lead.
If the music lacks the clarity of the Mozart it can be attributed to the scoring rather than the realisation – even Boulez concedes that in the second movement it is not easy for the violin to be heard because of what he describes as the “thick polyphony”, but this is an extremely well-recorded production of a somewhat eccentric issue.