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MusikTriennale Köln 2000

BERG: Lulu Suite (excerpts)
DEBUSSY: Le jet d’eau; Trois ballades de François Villon
STRAVINSKY: The Firebird (complete)
Christine Schafer (soprano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez
Filmed in April 2000, Philharmonie, Köln
Producer: Volker Dieckmann
Director: Janos Darvas
TDK DV-MTKBO [101 minutes]


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The no-more-than-adequate booklet notes complement the booklet listing. Only four movements of the five that make up Berg’s Lulu Suite are mentioned, indeed played, but there’s no explanation of why the opening and most substantial part (‘Rondo’) is missing. Perhaps it was not played but someone should be on the ball and say this. (Boulez recorded the whole suite in the ’seventies in New York for CBS, now Sony.) The Suite is thus more fragmentary-sounding than Berg, in his symphonic condensing of his (unfinished) opera, intended. Friedrich Cerha has subsequently completed Lulu, which Boulez has recorded for DG.

Then there’s the date of this filmed concert. 25 and 26 April state the listings; the notes relay 26. One concert played twice? Two different concerts excerpted into one for DVD? "The Firebird Suite (1910)". Really? There’s a choice of dates for the various suites Stravinsky made – 1911, 1919 or 1945. Boulez actually conducts the complete ballet score; the word ‘suite’ is therefore erroneous and used ignorantly.

And the subtitle option. This didn’t work for me – I only had Japanese (for ‘Lulu’s Song’ and the Debussy); the English option (and others) resolutely refusing to come into play.

Plunging into the second Lulu movement is unsatisfactory, and this is the least interesting part of the concert, mostly because of the missing movement. The four sections that we have are well enough done, especially the ‘Variations’, Boulez’s articulate qualities paying dividends, and Christine Schäfer (DVD coming into its own for her!) is on home ground in a role she has almost made her own. That said, she is aurally balanced too closely, and the sound overall is a tad bass heavy and distant. Cut the bass for the clarity one expects from a Boulez performance.

The Debussy items include the relatively rare Le jet d’eau (Baudelaire) – radiant and fluidly expressive – and one of Debussy’s highpoints in my view. The Villon settings, the first two songs, are of a special order. It is possible to indulge these songs more, but Schäfer is polished in her phrasing and Boulez doesn’t lack tenderness. I did wonder if sound and picture are always perfectly in sync, especially when involving Schäfer (her close balance seems manufactured), but if there is a parting its infinitesimal.

By the time The Firebird is reached the sound that I had initially thought diffuse, and with relatively restricted dynamics, seems to have more impact, if never matching the very present applause! There’s too much of that – for example all the curtain-calls for Berg are in place, and soon followed by another burst of hand-clapping to herald Debussy. Throughout, solo instruments are admirably clear though some tuttis lack the last degree of impact and expansion. I did fiddle with the volume quite a bit; its lowest setting was for applause!

Watching music being performed courtesy of a director and cameras is not the same as being at a concert – one doesn’t have the choice of what to view and what not to view; or indeed close one’s eyes. There is little to object to in this production – a traditional crosscutting of instruments and conductor.

I did listen for a large amount of The Firebird. This is a marvellous account of a Boulez favourite. If, watching Boulez, you can never quite tell what he’s thinking or feeling, the truth lies in the listening. His acute understanding (and affection for) Stravinsky’s Diaghilev commission allows not only a wonderful soundscape but also a vivid telling of the music’s narrative. This is an atmospheric, precisely coloured and detailed account of Stravinsky’s outsize score, one I would like to return to as a purely musical experience, away from the camera lens, for its refinement, translucence and virtuosity. That said, it’s always a pleasurable lesson to watch Boulez’s conducting technique – what an orchestra sees – every gesture pertinent, his hands independent. Also it is valuable and rewarding to have film of CSO luminaries such as Samuel Magad (concertmaster), Larry Combs (clarinet), Adolph Herseth (trumpet) and Dale Clevenger (horn), the latter’s solos throughout Firebird suitably entranced.

There’s an 11-minute feature, "Barenboim meets Boulez", described as ‘Part 1’ (I wonder where the rest is!), which finds Barenboim (CSO Music Director) effectively interviewing Boulez about this concert, twentieth-century music and Boulez’s thoughts on conducting. Apart from the satisfaction of noting that a conversion taking place in 2000 talks of the previous century (from 2001) as "this", Boulez effectively says that music’s upheaval (as determined by Schoenberg and Webern) was "organic", that too many people reject ‘new’ music before giving it proper consideration and listening more to it (I would add listening better). He considers himself an intuitive conductor, subtly changing his interpretation to accommodate a hall’s acoustic and the input of the musicians in front of him.

Boulez’s minute examination of scores is a source of inspiration. That he is also flexible and aware of ‘the moment’ has also been the prize for the intelligent listener; nice to know Boulez himself confirms these qualities.

Colin Anderson


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