Le Marteau sans maître [two performances]
Piano Sonata No.2
Sonatine for Flute and Piano
Structures [Livre I]
Concerto per il Marigny
Marie-Thérèse Cahn (contralto)
Jeanne Deroubaix (contralto)
Severino Gazzelloni (flute)
Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky (piano)
Yvonne Loriod (piano)
David Tudor (piano)
Soloists of Domaine Musical
Les Percussions de Strasbourg
Orchestre du Domaine Musical
Recorded between 1956 and 1964
A bonus CD includes an interview (in French) with Pierre Boulez recorded in September 2005; an English translation is included in one of two booklets
Reviewed by: Tristan Jakob-Hoff
Reviewed: August 2006
CD No: ACCORD 476 9209
[4 CDs + 1 bonus CD]
Duration: 5 hours 43 minutes
[including bonus CD]
It seems a very long time indeed since Pierre Boulez styled himself a revolutionary firebrand, given to issuing incendiary polemical statements in the grand tradition of a Wagner or a Schoenberg. Like so many former rebels, he has now embraced and been embraced by the so-called ‘establishment’, but it was not always so. With this set – the first of two volumes celebrating his years at the helm of Paris’s legendary “Le Domaine musical” concerts – we are transported back to a time when Boulez was more likely to be seen brandishing a flambeau outside the Opéra than conducting inside it.
Taking place from 1954, at first in the tiny 250-seat Théâtre du Petit Marigny and later at the famous Théâtre de l’Odéon, “Le Domaine musical” was a deliberate affront to ultra-conservative French taste, the most concerted attempt to shake up Parisian musical life since Diaghilev brought his Ballets Russes whirling through town. Starting as an adjunct to the Marigny’s resident theatre group, Boulez and his acolytes soon developed a cult following of their own, affording concert-goers the opportunity to hear Bach, Webern, Stockhausen and Nono in a single sitting. Works by Messiaen, Xenakis, Henze and Boulez himself received their premieres, and some of those performances were recorded for posterity; but while a number of those recordings are available elsewhere – on the Vega and Ades labels in particular – many of them appear in these boxed sets for the first time, dusted off from the archives that are now in the ownership of Universal Classics France.
This first set (a review of the second will follow) is concerned largely with the music of Boulez and his post-War contemporaries. It is packed with goodies: for just over the cost of a couple of full-price CDs, you get five discs and two accounts of the seminal “Le Marteau sans maître”, another whole disc of early Boulez works, a disc of French “références” (Debussy, Varèse and Messiaen), plus a smattering of works by other significant composers of the time, including Stockhausen, Kagel, Henze, Pousseur and Berio. Apart from Boulez, performers include Yvonne Loriod, Severino Gazzelloni, David Tudor and the Kontarsky brothers.
To be honest, none of these performances – with the exception of the 1964 ‘Marteau’ – could be considered first choices. Boulez-the-conductor has never been known for his warmth or suppleness, but his work here is dry and stiff to the point of being dull, betraying his inexperience not only with the works in question (many of which he was premiering) but with the art of conducting itself. At that time, he was first and foremost a composer and his first recording of ‘Marteau’ – made in 1956 with Marie-Thérèse Cahn singing the contralto part (part of the bonus disc that also includes a 50-minute interview with Pierre Boulez) – is wooden and pretty non-involving, matched in its lack of expression by the unlovely Vega recording. Boulez’s performances of Stockhausen’s early masterpieces Kontra-Punkte and Zeitmasse are similarly unencumbered by anything as distasteful as wit or spontaneity. The Varèse offerings – Hyperprism, Octandre and Intégrales – fare a little better, but they’re no threat to Boulez’s later recordings of these works on Sony.
Better represented here is Boulez-the-composer. While the charms of works such as the two-piano Structures (Livre I) are slow in revealing themselves, the Second Piano Sonata – written in 1948 and here given a crisply incisive performance by Yvonne Loriod – is a masterpiece. Better yet is the marvellous performance of the Sonatine for Flute and Piano by the great Italian flautist Severino Gazzelloni, revealed here as the most accessible of Boulez’s early works (it is considered to be his official Opus 1).
Gazzelloni appears many times over the course of these discs – in works by Debussy, Varèse and Berio – but his contribution is perhaps most appreciated in the 1964 recording of “Le Marteau sans maître”, where his flute proves a thoughtful and eloquent tour-guide through this exotic, Byzantine wonderland. Individual contributions from violist Serge Collot and guitarist Anton Stingl are equally impressive, and Jeanne Deroubaix’s brief contralto role is sung with a pleasing fluidity that belies the music’s complexity. Moreover, Boulez seems more relaxed in his technique as a conductor, allowing the music to breathe in a way he was unable to do in the earlier recording. It makes for an infinitely more compelling performance and, to those that do not already own the Ades release, it alone is worth the price of this fascinating set.
Transfers throughout are excellent – not least for the digital refurbishment being faithful to the original recordings’ timbres rather than squeezing the life out of them. This set is distributed in the UK by Discovery Records.