The Gramophone Choice
Coupled with Symphony in Three Movements. Four Etudes
Roxana Constantinescu mez Nicholas Phan ten Kyle Ketelsen bass-bar Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Pierre Boulez
CSO Resound CSOR901 920 (71’ · DDD/DSD) Recorded live 2009. Buy from Amazon
Boulez seems to ‘get’ the Symphony, whether stamping (though never pounding) through the neanderthal opening or maintaining tension in that wonderful passage near the close of the first movement where the flute meanders to a weirdly offbeat strings-and-piano accompaniment. On this new Chicago recording the piano is rather too close, the strings just a little tentative: a small detail, maybe, and in general the Chicago performance is very fine, the second movement sharing with its Berlin predecessor (DG) many delicate textures, though the actual sound of the two orchestras provides an interesting study in tonal contrasts, the Berlin band yielding a typically golden body of tone, albeit slimmed down under Boulez’s calorie-conscious direction, the Chicago Symphony more steel and velvet than gold, though polished and mostly precise.
The third of the Studies provides another sort of comparison, Chicago with Chicago this time – 1992 for DG versus 2009 – this newer performance suggesting a stark sense of ritual whereas in 1992 the same music sounds more homogeneous but has less of an ‘edge’ to it. Pulcinella is mostly quite relaxed and affectionately played though with no lack of drama where needed, such as in the tellingly invasive Allegro assai. There’s a measured but pointed Tarantella and a very nicely played Gavotte with variations which leads back to territory where ballet and suite coincide, most memorably for the famous Vivo, where those fabulous Chicago trombones really have a chance to show off. Good singing throughout and many felicitous instrumental solos keep one hooked, which means an unhesitating recommendation unless your main interest is the Symphony, in which case the Berlin recording remains, by a small margin, my overall preference.