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Pierre BOULEZ – in Rehearsal
Alban BERG (1885 – 1935)

Three Orchestral Pieces Op.6 (1915)
Pierre BOULEZ (b. 1925)

Notations 1 – 4 (1978)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsed and conducted in the Musikverein, Vienna, by Pierre Boulez
recorded in 1998, (DVD)
Arthaus 100 290 [57 minutes]

Pierre Boulez is one of the more famous composer/conductors in contemporary music. Unlike some he excels in both spheres … unless of course you don’t like his musical style. This DVD shows him working with one of the top orchestras in the world in his own music and that of a modern composer for which he has great sympathy. His conducting style is very interesting. He sets off, and almost allows the orchestra to play right through, as though there is nothing wrong. He then returns to the start and meticulously rehearses tiny snippets where he requires some change. How he is able to remember all of the parts he wants to go over is beyond me. For example, when massed brass is playing, he is able to pick out one player in the mêlée who is playing a semi-tone out of tune. He homes in on this poor individual, and you feel sure that he will never play it wrong again. All this is done with a quiet charm, there being no raised voices, just musicians working together at the service of the composer.

My usual complaint about rehearsal programmes such as this, is that we do not get to hear the complete programme after it has been rehearsed. So it is here, but because Boulez insists on playing the work through almost complete at the beginning of the rehearsal, we do at least get to hear the piece as interpreted by the orchestra. And with an ensemble as good as the Vienna Philharmonic, the initial run through is bound to be pretty good.

This release comes with no notes, no recording location or any other data except the playing time. Arthaus are to be castigated for this. With a programme of this nature, some notes, even rudimentary ones, would have been very useful, and easy to produce. Given the prices of these DVDs this should be mandatory.

Alban Berg had spent a week with Schoenberg in Berlin in 1913. He returned in a state of extreme depression after having been told by his mentor that he was deficient in the standards of his compositions, his attitudes and his way of life. He had at this time also been deeply affected by the failure of his "Altenberg Lieder", such that they were never performed again in public during Berg’s lifetime. Taking Schoenberg’s criticisms to heart, Berg began to write a Symphony intending it to be a large work. Unfortunately it stubbornly refused to materialise, and upon another comment from Schoenberg, he recast much of the material into a three movement work which eventually became the Three Pieces, Op. 6. These were sent to Schoenberg as a present for his 40th birthday on 13th September 1914. The unfinished central movement was completed and sent to Schoenberg during the following summer. These are the most complicated pieces written by the composer, and it is necessary to have a conductor well versed in the idiom to make them sound more than a cacophony, which they could otherwise easily become. Boulez spends his time efficiently and very soon, the work starts to emerge as, one would hope, the composer intended.

When we turn to the Boulez pieces, we have the composer in front of the ensemble. The direction should be accurate, and so it is. The four notations are a reworking of the composer’s earlier work for piano Notations 1 – 12. Returning to these some thirty years later, Boulez completely rewrote them and turned them into an orchestral composition at once complex and demanding, showing a development of the material in a short time-frame. See if you can get to grips with them. I had difficulty, but it was a fascinating journey.

I would recommend this disc to anyone who wants to learn a bit more about contemporary orchestral music; contemporary? … nearly a century has elapsed since the Berg was originally composed.

John Phillips

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