Top Ear

Top Ear First Anniversary Special: The Surprise Reviews (Part II): Criminal Mastermind, Brain Surgeon, Avant-garde warrior Pierre Boulez offers dainty delights

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Leonard Ip writes

Among Pierre Boulez’s voluminous DG recordings of 20th century works, this Berg and Stravinsky album stands out to the connoisseur as a neglected gem. In collaboration with the ever so versatile Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman (who plays the violin here), clarinetist Michel Arrignon and his own Ensemble InterContemporain, Boulez turns in remarkable performances of these delightful chamber works that are surely attractive to both avant-garde enthusiasts and (to borrow Virginia Woolf’s phrase) the common listener.

In almost everything he plays Barenboim’s strength of personality dominates the picture, but here, luckily, he is matched by Zukerman’s equally assertive demeanour. Berg’s Chamber Concerto for Piano and Violin with 13 Instruments features prominent solo parts for both stars, and the result of their collaboration is unfailingly engaging – a case in point would be the opening of the Rondo, where Barenboim’s full assault on the keyboard elicits bold (almost brutal) octave playing from Zukerman. The digitally agile playing of Ensemble InterContemporain displays exceptional vividness in character and clarity in textural differentiation. Abbado/Serkin/Stern on Sony is recommended as a cooler alternative to the more heavily expressive performance at hand.

Both products of Stravinsky’s so-called neoclassical period, the “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto and the Ebony Concerto strike the listener by the simplicity of their language, clear-cut colourisation, linear rhythmic profile, and, in the latter, heavy jazz influence. Boulez sounds clearly at home with the idiom and carefully manages the articulation, timbre and dramatic timing of every instrumental entry. Taking advantage of the prominence given to the woodwinds by these works, Ensemble InterContemporain bring its prowess in woodwind playing into full play, again succeeding splendidly in both characterization and textual clarity – practically every moment in these pieces impresses the listener with extraordinary expressivity and technical aplomb. For all the merits Boulez’s razor-sharp direction yields, these performances lean towards the serious side of tastes for a more playful and naturally light-spirited take on these entertaining works, Dutoit/Decca remains unsurpassed.

The 8 Instrumental Miniatures are re-scorings of Les cinq doigts, a piano suite written for children in 1921. The materials themselves show both the flamboyant spirit and sweet melodic invention of the composer’s Russian period and the sparse linearity of the neoclassical period, sounding a good deal more colourful and effective played by a wind ensemble. Ensemble InterContemporain turns in a lovely performance with moments of rhythmic alacrity (e.g. the last tango) (alas, not recorded in Paris) supplemented by melting cantabile (e.g. the moderato, now popularized by the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky). Frankly these eight miniatures have entertained me more than the rest of the disc combined, and I’m sure they will do the same for you.

All in all, then, this is a most pleasant affair that the criminal mastermind of the modern day musical scene arranged. I suspect seasoned lovers of this repertoire may have varied tastes but Boulez’s recordings here cannot be faulted in any aspects. Get ready for some groovy listening.

Berg: Kammerkonzert; Stravinsky: Ebony Concerto U.A.
DG 447 405-2 ADD – 61.45 mins
Piano: Daniel Barenboim*
Violin: Pinchas Zukerman*
Clarinet: Michel Arrignon#
Pierre Boulez conducts Ensemble InterContemporain
*Berg, #Stravinsky

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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