Boulez—Complete Works on DG

by Sedgwick Clark

Pierre Boulez began his recording career in earnest for Columbia and CBS Records (now on Sony Classical) in 1966. In the late 1980s, for Erato, he recorded several of his own works, as well as some by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and young contemporary composers whose music interested him. Then, in March 1991, he began an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon that resulted in new recordings of most of his Columbia and CBS repertoire, divided between the orchestras of Cleveland, Chicago, Berlin, and Vienna. In addition, he added many new works to his recorded catalogue, including many of his own.

It appears that the 88-year-old Boulez’s conducting, recording, and compositional careers are over now, silenced by an eye ailment that prevents him from seeing his scores. DG seems to be acknowledging this fact of life with its release last week of a handsome new 13-CD edition of Boulez’s complete works, with the composer leading all the works requiring a conductor. To the college student who discovered the Frenchman’s artistry soon after his classical-music “Eureka!” moment with Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, this set comes as a shining example of the currently embattled recording industry’s good works. We are inundated every day by vanity CDs and duplicate downloads praying for a piece of the pie before oblivion beckons, but here is a testament to a lifetime of accomplishment hailed with the thoughtfulness of classy design, excellent sound, and a 250-page French/English booklet with copious notes and photos.

The yellow label has done it right. First, the composer supervised the collection, making the choices between works he recorded more than once (three times in the cases of Le Marteau sans maître and Pli selon pli). Second, in order to include all of Boulez’s compositions, DG has included recordings from several other labels, including Sony, Erato, and Harmonia Mundi. Third, several short pieces, most for solo instruments or small ensembles, were recorded to fill out the composer’s catalogue.

The final disc contains an October 2011 interview with Boulez conducted in French by Claude Samuel and translated into English in the accompanying booklet.  Boulez is as lucid as ever, although sounding alarmingly gravelly compared to 11 months before when he was interviewed by Ara Guzelimian at an 85th-birthday celebration at Columbia University’s Miller Theater in New York. (Now that I think about it, that was also the last time I had the opportunity to speak with Elliott Carter and Charles Rosen.)

As Boulez himself has always left future possibilities open, so does Deutsche Grammophon. In my first interview of four over 30 years with the French musician, he explained that he viewed composition as a “spiral” into which he could return to a work and imbue it with new ideas. The works and performers are listed on the back of the CD box, and DG’s head cannily reads “Pierre Boulez  Works in Progress.”

Looking Forward
My week’s scheduled concerts (8:00 p.m. unless otherwise noted):

8/3 at 4-10:00 p.m. MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA. 12th Annual Bang on a Can Marathon. View program.

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