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Boulez Pairs Mozart with Berg

available at Amazon
Mozart, Gran Partita / Berg, Chamber Concerto, M. Uchida, C. Tetzlaff, Ensemble Intercontemporain, P. Boulez

(released on November 11, 2008)
Decca 478 0316

Online score:
Mozart, Gran Partita, K. 361
Mozart's remarkable serenade for thirteen wind instruments (B-flat major, K. 361/370a), also known as the Gran Partita, is one of the greatest compositional achievements for wind ensemble (the Library of Congress has Mozart's holograph score in its collection -- view it online). All chamber orchestras and similar groups will assay it, like the wind players of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment did at the Library of Congress a couple years ago, and with so many recordings available, this recent one is certainly not needed. The Ensemble Intercontemporain plays well but, with its diet generally composed of contemporary music, sounds just a little uncomfortable here, especially the oboes, whose solo parts are so crucial. Anyone who already owns a recording of the work need not rush out to buy it, and for the Mozart, a version with historical instruments, especially the basset horns Mozart had in mind, is recommended. As he often does in his conducting Pierre Boulez keeps things moving, trimming some of the fat off a very familiar work, but also seems much more engaged by the Berg that rounds off the recording.

Mozart, Gran Partita, K. 361, holograph score, Library of Congress
Mozart, Gran Partita, K. 361, holograph score, Library of Congress
The interest behind this pairing of works on the disc is more formal, in that Boulez, who does not normally go this far back into history [on disc, of course--Ed.], conducts the Gran Partita. In an interview with James Jolly in the liner notes, Boulez speaks briefly about the work, noting that what interests him is the varied use of the instruments to create unusual sonorities. This is one of Boulez's strengths, to shape a score through careful dynamic control section by section. Most of the interview, however, is given over to the Berg work, the Kammerkonzert für Klavier und Geige mit 13 Bläsern, a completely different use of thirteen wind instruments (here brass and woodwinds together) with guest spots for violin and piano. The work is an infamous example of Berg's fondness for complexity, with reference to historical forms, but here especially in numerological symbolism, other puzzles (the second movement's palindromic form), and allusions to all three names of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern, himself), embedded in the work by use of tone rows and other recurring motifs.

This sort of repertory is much more Ensemble Intercontemporain's specialty -- in fact, Boulez has previously recorded the work with this ensemble, just with Pinchas Zukerman instead of Christian Tetzlaff and Daniel Barenboim instead of Mitsuko Uchida. Truth be told, the combination featured on this disc is to be preferred, as the work is allowed more room to breathe (the timing is a couple minutes longer than the earlier version), especially in the moody Adagio movement, with the "midnight" section at the middle of the palindrome, with its twelve low C#s tolling in the murky distance. In fact, one listener who heard one of the concerts of this program at the Salle Pleyel last March (the work was recorded at IRCAM the following weekend) reports that many people in the audience arrived after intermission -- that is, intentionally skipping the Mozart to get to the Berg. Since the reverse has been known to happen at National Symphony Orchestra concerts, what does that say about the divide between traditionalist and contemporary listeners?



mfritter said...

Richter recorded the Berg with Kagan. Has anybody heard it?

According to the Monsaingeon book, he had a very low opinion of the earlier Boulez recording, which I believe he thought was under rehearsed.

According to Amazon, it's only available on a 4-CD box set that contains much that's available elsewhere.

Uchida is very good in this repertory.

Charles T. Downey said...

Great comment. I added a link to the post to the re-release of the earlier Boulez/Ensemble Inter recording. In fact, Uchida makes a comment about the difficulty of the music and how this group had several full rehearsals and four performances to prepare the recording.

Anonymous said...

"Boulez, who does not normally go this far back into history."

Do your homework, Downey! If you look in the NYPhil archives, you will see that Boulez regularly programmmed Bach, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, lots of Mozart, Rameau, Schutz, and even Vorisek.

Charles T. Downey said...

You know, if you are going to be that imperious as a commenter, anonymity seems extra cowardly. I have added what I assumed was clear in the review, that the comment you single out for attack was meant about Boulez's track record on disc. If you had thought about it a little before leaping down my throat, that might have occurred to you.

But, anyway, thanks for reading, I guess.

jfl said...

Not to pour water onto the mills of anonymous pomposity, but Boulez did record Handel with the NYPhil, Mozart Concertos with Curzon, and was once forced to have Schumann's Scenes From Goethe's Faust recorded.

I don't know about the Handel, but at least the other two performances were admittedly live recordings, which means that recording was rather more accidental than intentional on the part of Boulez.

Charles T. Downey said...

And even some Bach -- as orchestrated by Webern, of course.

gymnopedies13 said...

I recently purchased this recording and am enjoying it a lot; the Berg is a revelation to my ears. I am familiar with the older Barenboim/Zuckerman et al recording and used to listen to it with the score in-hand, and honestly it wound up being my least favorite Berg piece, but the present recording has turned me around and set me straight. In the older recording, the piano/violin cadenza used to seem cacophonous and wild, but the Tetzlaff-Uchida performance of it finds the "music" in it. They obviously got it right. I am now able to enjoy this piece fully instead of being puzzled by it.

Charles T. Downey said...

@gymnopedies13 -- Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am so glad that you enjoyed the recording as much as I did.