DVD – Pierre Boulez In Rehearsal

0 of 5 stars

Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6
Notations I-IV

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Date of film not specified – © 1998

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: November 2003

If I was asked to summarise succinctly my reaction to this DVD, the response would have to be: “fascination and frustration”.

The former lies with the opportunity to observe Boulez at work with the Vienna Philharmonic rehearsing this demanding repertoire, as well as hearing comments from Boulez about the music and his approach to it. He is actually more forthcoming about the difficulties and intricacies of the Berg, than he is with his own Notations. It would have been revealing to have had further insight into the way he tackled the task of orchestrating – for an orchestra of mammoth proportions – his piano pieces which date from 1945. (The cover, incidentally, misleadingly infers that these orchestral versions date from then – he began the orchestrations in 1980.)

The Berg rehearsals are placed first, and Boulez works for quite long stretches without stopping. Actually there are quite a few mistakes which are allowed to pass by, which, I suspect, had the cameras not been rolling, would have been corrected there and then. Boulez subsequently deals intensively with the problems which need addressing, and it is interesting to note how even a great orchestra such as the Vienna Philharmonic still has difficulties with this fearsomely exacting music. The rhythmic intricacies pose not a few problems and the trumpet section is subjected to some scrupulous attention.

In his own music, Boulez is, naturally, similarly painstaking and here the harps are put through their paces, appearing decidedly uncomfortable with the requirements of their parts. There are also errors to be corrected in the orchestral parts – the bane of every conductor’s and every player’s life.

One forms the impression that the rehearsals were filmed at the start of what was a lengthy rehearsal process, as there is a sense of the players feeling their way and a finished, polished performance is not yet in sight.

And herein lies a good deal of the frustration factor, since we are not vouchsafed a glimpse of a final performance. Indeed only Notations II and IV are played through complete, and the footage often switches rapidly to Boulez articulating his thoughts in a setting away from the stage of the Musikverein, where the rehearsals take place. One particularly annoying moment is towards the end of the third of Berg’s pieces where Boulez is heard as a ’voice-over’ just as the climax is in view. So we see a doughty percussionist wield a mighty hammer for those cataclysmic blows, but the sound of the music is faded so as to render the commentary audible.

Boulez’s manner in rehearsal although relaxed, is fairly matter-of-fact, keen to tackle difficulties directly and particularly concerned with balance. In a lighter moment, he shares a story from his days with the BBC Symphony when he nearly had his head knocked off by a camera.

The booklet contains no information whatsoever about the music, the dates of recording or locations, listing instead the production personnel and advertising other Arthaus titles. There are one or two oddities – and mis-translations – in the English subtitles.

But in spite of inadequacies and flawed presentation, this DVD is recommended, since to watch Boulez at work is an absorbing experience – his pithy comments and observations are always enlightening.

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