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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Serenade in B flat major for 13 wind instruments, “Gran Partita”, K. 361 (1781) [47:42]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Chamber Concerto for piano, violin and 13 wind instruments (1923-25) [32:07]
Mitsuko Uchida (piano); Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Ensemble Intercontemporain/Pierre Boulez
rec. IRCAM, Pompidou Centre, Paris, 19-21 March 2008. DDD
DECCA 4780316 [79:49]


Experience Classicsonline

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 and interested.

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 movements.

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 and Schoenberg.

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.

Mark Sebastian Jordan



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