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 Recording of the Week  The Complete Works of Pierre Boulez on Deutsche Grammophon

I’ve written several times in these newsletters about Pierre Boulez, the conductor, but this week I’d like to talk about Boulez as composer. A student of Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz, Boulez is often regarded as one of the most important twentieth-century French composers. He is perhaps best known for his attempts to push the boundaries of serialism, as well as investigating the ideas of improvisation and controlled chance (most notably in the Third Piano Sonata, where to a certain extent the performer decides upon the ordering of the various sections).

Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez

Deutsche Grammophon has just released a 13-disc set of the complete works of Boulez, and it is this magnum opus that I have been steadily working my way through over the past couple of weeks. Boulez is notorious for not only subjecting his works to ongoing revisions, but also withdrawing compositions that he deems unsatisfactory, and so this set only contains pieces considered by him to be ‘finished’. Subtitled “Work in Progress”, it is described in the booklet note as “the inventory of a body in the process of edification”, and has been assembled under his personal supervision. It includes new recordings made specifically for this edition, and indeed some of the works have not appeared on CD before.

The line-up of performers on this set really couldn’t be bettered. Fittingly, a lot of the orchestral pieces are conducted by Boulez and performed by Ensemble InterContemporain, the chamber ensemble specialising in contemporary repertoire which he founded in 1976. Instrumental soloists are top-notch, too: my introduction to the music of Boulez some years ago was a recording of the Second Piano Sonata by Maurizio Pollini, and I was very pleased to discover that his recording has been chosen for inclusion. This particular sonata is almost impossibly fiendish to perform (legend has it that the great French pianist, Yvonne Loriod, burst into tears at the prospect of having to learn it!), but Pollini’s performance is simply stunning, with jaw-dropping virtuosity on display in every bar.

No less impressive is another pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who performs the First Piano Sonata as well as the Douze Notations; both recordings again demonstrate fearless pianism of the highest quality. Most of the pieces in this set were new to me, and I very much enjoyed getting to know some of them, especially Figures, Doubles, Prismes for large orchestra, and Répons for soloists and chamber ensemble, which has some fascinatingly inventive writing for percussion and live electronics.

However, I think the highlight of the set is the seventh disc, which includes possibly my favourite piece of Boulez – Messagesquisse, sur le nom de Paul Sacher for cello solo and six cellos. I first came across this piece at a BBC Proms concert last year, with Daniel Barenboim conducting members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and I remember being astounded at the range of sounds that Boulez manages to draw from the instrument. The performance on this set is equally phenomenal, and in my opinion argues the case extremely well for this piece to be counted as one of his finest.

I won’t claim that Boulez’s music is going to be to everyone’s taste: always uncompromising, it can sometimes be hard-going and austere, and I will admit that I find some of the more extreme serial pieces difficult to listen to on occasion. Having said that, there is some really extraordinary music here, that is undoubtedly worth taking the time to investigate.