One thing I didn’t expect to see any time soon was a recording
of Mozart by Pierre Boulez, but here it is, intriguingly paired
with a work more predictably from his stable. Mozart’s Gran
Partita serenade and Berg’s Chamber Concerto don’t
necessarily sit comfortably together. On the other hand, they
certainly demonstrate the ground that can be covered with a core
group of 13 (more-or-less) wind instruments, though the 13 differ
in each work.
What works here
is the lucidity given both works by Boulez. Though he makes
no concessions to period-instrument performance style in the
Mozart, his natural preference for clean textures, brisk tempi
and coherently-built phrasing gets him half way there, regardless.
It is refreshing to hear the work essentially scrubbed clean,
back to its natural vibrancy and brightness by the stripping
away of conventions and traditions.
The weakest aspect
of the Mozart is Boulez’s astringent refusal to indulge the
Adagio in the slightest. Granted, probably no movement in Mozart
has generated more swooning than this - consider for instance
the character Salieri’s speech in Peter Shaffer’s play and film
Amadeus - but its expressive powers are considerable.
Boulez nullifies that power by opting for a tempo that strikes
me as more “andante” than “adagio.” In this, he is not alone.
Over-reaction to sentimental excesses of the past led to a similarly
brisk tempo in the BBC recording led by Anthony Halstead. Even
Sir Charles Mackerras arguably misses the mark in his otherwise
fine rendition on Telarc. To hear the “Adagio” in more exalted,
secular-humanistic glory, one might fall back to Sir Neville
Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Philips;
the one used in the film version of Amadeus. You might even
go back to the lofty, granitic version by Otto Klemperer and
members of the Philharmonia (EMI). For a full complement of
repeats throughout the work, the recording by Jane Glover and
the London Mozart Players Wind Ensemble from the early 1980s
is a joy. It appeared first on Novello and later on ASV. Ultimately,
despite some reservations about Boulez’s refusal to yield many
expressive touches, this is still fine music-making, full of
interest. Despite his preferences for layered, contrapuntal
music, he rarely slips into auto-pilot mode, sounding engaged
It’s a little odd
that Boulez uses the numerical correlation between the Mozart
and Berg pieces as an excuse for programming them together,
while at the same time disregarding Berg’s instruction to play
the repeat in the finale of the Chamber Concerto, thus
leaving the numerological aspect of the work unfulfilled. To
be sure, Boulez is unsentimental and unsuperstitious. However,
the argument can be made that the numerological intention has
a mathematical function of balancing the fragmented finale (made
of shreds of the earlier two movements) as the second half of
the work against the first two movements as the first half.
Skipping the repeat robs it of weight. But Boulez is being both
true to form and practical. He also skipped repeats in the Menuetto
movements of the Mozart. Frankly, had he played all repeats,
the two works wouldn’t have fit on one disc anyway. And to play
devil’s advocate for just a moment, many will find it a blessing
that the finale of the Chamber Concerto is cut short,
as it’s a much more complicated structure than the first two
Compared with earlier
recordings by Abbado and Holliger, Boulez is lighter, cooler
and more flowing in the Berg. The Abbado recording, with Isaac
Stern and Peter Serkin in the solo slots, with players from
the London Symphony, remains a glowering, imposing performance.
It was available in the mid-1980s from CBS (MK 42139), coupled
with Stern’s early stereo recording of Berg’s Violin Concerto
(Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic). Warmer and
more spacious than Abbado is the wonderful Teldec recording
(2292-46019-2) from around 1990 featuring the compelling violin
of Thomas Zehetmair and the elegant piano of Oleg Maisenberg,
with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe led by Heinz Holliger.
Holliger and company seem to humanize the work, whereas Abbado,
Stern and Serkin never seem to stop frowning, powerfully capturing
its explosive areas, but missing the whimsical fun that Holliger’s
crew finds. Holliger reminds us that the work was, after all,
intended as a celebration of the friendship of Berg, Webern
Boulez seeks neither
to humanize nor aggrandize the piece. Rather, his approach is
at one with the Mozart: A clear, lucid, accurate performance
of the score as written, but with a compelling musical flow.
Christian Tetzlaff’s handling of the violin part rivals Zehetmair’s
authoritative manner, but this is within a more classical framework.
Uchida is even more distinctive than Maisenberg in the piano
part, but the recording balance favours the violin over the
piano. Overall, while very clear and colourful, the recorded
sound of this Decca disc is clearly of studio origin, with little
hall sound. This further emphasizes its classical clarity. One
could say that of these three recordings, Boulez is the classical
option, Holliger the romantic, and Abbado the expressionistic.