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Pierre BOULEZ (1925-2016)
Sur Incises (1996/1998) [37:06]
Messagesquisse (1976-1977) [8:35]
Anthemes 2 (1997) [20:27]
Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello: Messagesquisse)
Hae-Sun Kang (violin: Anthemes)
Ensemble Intercontemporain (Incises), Ensemble de violoncelles de Paris (Messagesquisse)/Pierre Boulez
rec. October 1999, Cite de la musique, salle des concerts (Messagesquisse) and December 1999, IRCAM, Espace de projection, Paris.
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6351 [66:25]

Pierre Boulez has come in for a great deal of criticism and indeed downright rejection in certain quarters. Valid arguments can be made on all sides, but my approach is as far as possible to avoid dogma or intellectual posturing from whatever source, and to listen with as open a mind as possible. Boulez’s idiom is considered to be an acquired taste, but this is the kind of recording that might make your jaw drop in amazement even without the previous acquisition of such tastes. At the very least you can leave it lying around as a hint to your sophisticated musical appetites.

These were all premiere recordings when first released with a ‘Boulez 2000’ logo added to the top right of the cover. IRCAM was of course Boulez’s fiefdom throughout the 1980s and beyond, and you can tell by the label on the bottom left that we are within this zone of comfort or discomfort, depending on your point of view. Sur Incises was awarded the 2001 Grawemeyer Prize for composition. It has a point of connection with Messagesquisse in which both use the Sacher hexachord, a tone row based on Paul Sacher’s name, the dedicatee of Sur Incises. This work came a few years after Incises or "Interpolations" for solo piano, which was composed as a competition test piece, so virtuosity was always a part of its conception.

Wolfgang Fink writes interestingly on Boulez in his booklet text for this release, pointing out “the open-endedness of the modern work of art”, especially in the realms of atonality and labyrinthine structure. Sur Incises can be approached in numerous ways, but hearing it again I was struck by how much Stravinsky is audible. The primordial opening and rhythmic energy have their connections to the Rite of Spring, and I hear Les noces in the quasi-ritualistic character of the first section. Atmosphere is alway strong beyond the more hard-driven material, and is easily absorbed by just listening to the effect of the music rather than trying to comprehend every note. Rhythmic drive becomes the turbulent flowing of a river into a dark abyss in Moment I, or indeed whatever takes your fancy. It shouldn’t be hard to invent your own relatable narrative to such an outspoken musical form. Sur Incises is scored for three pianos, three harps, and three percussion parts which use a variety of tuned percussion instruments: vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, steel drums, tubular bells, and crotales. There are further timbral connections here, for instance with Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, and perhaps even with Debussy, but the overall impression is of complexity underpinning a quite luminous soundworld, the layering of which allowing us to latch onto whatever attracts our ear at any one sitting, depending on state of mind or current ability to concentrate. The sound of the pianos is for instance extended through percussion instruments, in particular steel drums, which imitate electronic effects that will be familiar to Boulez connoisseurs. Agreed, this is not music for everyday easy listening, but let your mind wander through its sometimes crystalline wonders and hopefully you’ll be able to stop caring if it’s modern, difficult, complex or ‘hard’. Such labels are barriers to appreciation, and as many an Olympic sportsperson will tell you, the best things in life are hard.

Both Messagesquisse and Anthemes 2 set solo instruments against their like, and therefore arguably follow the concerto grosso tradition. Messagesquisse is for cello solo and cello ensemble, and is a brief and intense concerto, including a cadenza in the penultimate section. There are passages of restless quiet in which textures of one kind or another are explored, but Boulez’s explosive dynamics and urgent rhythmic impulse are also present. Anthemes II relates to Sur Incises in being derived from a previous competition work, Anthemes I for solo violin. Anthemes II makes use of live electronics, taking the sound of the soloist and processing it to create parallel chords and vast soundscapes, answering and echoing, creating expanded textures and surreal effects. Such a work takes the phrase ‘chamber music’ and makes the chamber into as important a musical partner as the instrument being played, becoming a space that talks back, constantly changes shape, colour and shade, and becomes a fascinating musical hall of mirrors. Beauty is always in the eye or ear of the beholder, but you’d pay to go into something like that, wouldn't you?

Dominy Clements

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