> BOULEZ Pli selon pli [PQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Pierre BOULEZ (born 1925)
Pli selon pli

Christine Schafer (soprano)
Ensemble Intercontemporain/Pierre Boulez
Recorded in the Salle des Concerts, Cité de la Musique, Paris, January and February 2001
DG 471 344-2 [69’51"]


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Paul Griffiths promises us in his sleeve notes to this, Boulez’s third recording of Pli selon pli, that the disc contains ‘The ultimate realization [sic]’, the ‘definitive shape’ of his portrait of Stephane Mallarmé. Elsewhere, this 1989 version of a piece more than three decades in the creating and refining is described only as its ‘present version’. Given the composer’s penchant - some might say obsession - for revising earlier works, this might seem a wiser hedging of bets. In all truth, though, Boulez will probably leave it be, if for no more pragmatic reason than that he has plenty else to do - returning to Bayreuth for Parsifal next summer and ‘recomposing’ more of the piano Notations for orchestra being near the top of the list that also includes a violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter.

To the two ‘Improvisations sur Mallarmé’ from 1957, Boulez added a third and then two larger-scale bookends, Don and Tombeau, within the next four years. By 1962, he had increased the instrumentation of the first two Improvisations to match the rest, and that version was the basic text for his first two recordings of the work, made in 1969 and 1982. Griffiths describes the forces required as a soprano with a ‘medium-scale orchestra’: the effect, though, is one of a hyper-varied chamber ensemble, capable even of more subtleties of timbre and rhythm than a full symphony orchestra. Boulez thought otherwise, for the 1989 revision enlarges the third improvisation in scale and content and makes solid the previously fluid order of certain sections.

Is it basically the same piece? Yes. In which case, should you care what tinkerings happened when? Well, yes. Paradoxically, the two previous recordings of Pli selon pli, using smaller forces, were made with the BBC Symphony Orchestra; this one is played by the Ensemble Intercontemporain, ‘his ideal interpreters’, DG trumpets, who when I saw them perform the work at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of years ago, filled the stage. The ensemble certainly displays greater familiarity with the music and more security with its extreme rhythmic virtuosity but even the relatively minor increase in the density of texture makes what is already formidably complex music more bewildering to listen to.

That said, the recording makes things as delightful for the listener as is conceivably possible. DG has created a soundstage of remarkable depth and fidelity: the guitar, mandolin and piano which play such an important part in this music, at once percussive and sensuous, are placed at realistic distances from each other. Every instrument seems to emerge from the speakers in its own place. Erato’s sound for the second recording is what lets it down most, losing clarity at complexes of loud drum strokes.

As if to further compensate for the extra elaboration of the musical ‘folds’, Boulez has also slackened his tempos over the three recordings: this one is a full ten minutes longer than the Sony recording. It’s hard to say whether this makes the soprano role more or less taxing; Christine Schafer is more tonally beguiling than Halina Lukomska on Sony or Phyllis Bryn-Julson on Erato, but pretty sounds aren’t everything; the other two both also inflect Mallarmé’s elusive text with considerable understanding. Bryn-Julson’s vibrato grates on me after repeated listening, but Lukomska offers a slightly plainer interpretation that gives more of a conventional phrase structure to her singing.

This new DG recording offers the most complex and detailed recording yet of a piece still puzzling and profoundly beautiful. But complexity isn’t everything; those who already know and love the work will want to hear to hear it, but for the newcomer to Boulez, I recommend going back to his (almost ) first thoughts on the matter, on Sony.

Peter Quantrill

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