Pierre Boulez (photo: DG)

It is the third time since last August that I have had the pleasure of a conversation with Pierre Boulez. But in early January Paris is under snow and the location is new to me: the hall of the Cite de la Musique at La Villette, in the north-east corner of the city, where I am invited to attend a rehearsal, before our meeting, of part of the inaugural concert there that is to be given in a few days’ time. Pierre Boulez’s secretary has faxed a map to me but the entrance to the hall is not where I expect and I pick my way gingerly round to the back where vans are being backed up and unloaded in an air of eleventh-hour urgency. Once inside, it takes several enquiries before anyone admits to knowledge of a rehearsal going on, let alone of Pierre Boulez conducting one. I persist and find myself there at last, inside a rather plain, functional auditorium – a modular performance-space with seats where a large body of strings is being rehearsed in what I at first take to be early Schoenberg. (Or is it Berg – no, can’t be.) What is it? The acoustic is pleasing and the rehearsal full of interest, and then the penny drops. Of course, the Adagio of Mahler’s Tenth. The orchestra is that of the Conservatoire, whose new building is nearby. The students stamp their feet in appreciation at the end of the rehearsal, and I remark to Boulez that they are making a good sound.

Yes, he is pleased with the strings and has been surprised, at this stage of rehearsals, to find them better than the wind – here in France, one would have expected the reverse. The Director of the Conservatoire joins us for a while and Boulez sits down at the piano in the conductor’s room to demonstrate how he thinks the trombones should work at the tuning of their chords. As always, his concern is to help musicians achieve mastery of their tasks as quickly and effectively as possible. This is not Cleveland or Chicago but he is responding to what he has before him, as always, and his observations seem like little detonations, fuelled by his practical intelligence. Lucky Conservatoire students.

Glancing through the list of his new releases I begin with an obvious question: why is he re-recording so much of his repertoire?

‘I suppose because I am older. I compare recordings to photographs. I have photographs of what I did 25 years ago and I would like pictures of what I do now. During those years I have acquired a lot of experience of the orchestral literature, and of conducting; and you know, in a paradoxical way, you become more spontaneous when you know more, when you know better; earlier on, when you know less, you’re thinking all the time of what you’re supposed to do, what you want to do, and how to do it. With experience, you can have more spontaneity, more direct contact. You don’t jump into something blind, of course not, but I would say it’s a different balance, a question of doing less thinking and more acting. You just do it. For me, that’s the big difference.’

But the old recordings: are they still of interest to him? Does he listen to them? ‘No, I don’t want to listen to them because I think they might give me a deliberate intention to be different. I prefer that the organic process of change, which is normal in human nature, should run its course, rather than to be confronted… Well, it’s true that in some of my older recordings the intentions are much the same. Often the realization isn’t up to the mark, or could be better. Yet the Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is an example of a work where I have changed. The fourth movement is not the same. If you listen to my old recording with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, you can hear I’m much more ‘dancing’ now, as opposed to the ‘cutting’ attitude I had then. Tempos have changed and the spirit has changed, but that’s not because of a formulated intention on my part so much as because I now feel them this way and consider my feeling more appropriate to the work than it was before.’

The technological developments in recording are important to him – another spur to have some more recent photographs taken. We move on to orchestras. Since a certain pattern has emerged – Debussy in Cleveland, Bartók in Chicago, Mahler in Vienna – I ask how the choices come about. Was there, for instance, a particular reason for doing Debussy in Cleveland? ‘No, only because I like this orchestra very much – I’ve been working with them since the mid1960s – and because we understand each other well. They are a fine and very refined orchestra, of course, which Debussy needs: they have great flexibility, great suppleness and a beautiful smoothness of sound. But other orchestras also have these qualities: I’ve done the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune with the Vienna Philharmonic (played it, not recorded it) and that too was extremely good! At this level you can’t make a preference and divide orchestras into categories as you might say this restaurant is better for fish and that one better for steak… So, you can’t do all the repertoire with the same orchestra and the choices are made for a variety of reasons: sentimental, practical, circumstantial. You know how it is: you’re there for a certain period and certain works get chosen according to the programmes you’re doing. Well, over the years I eventually did all the Debussy repertoire with the Cleveland, and as I say, we understood each other.

Did Boulez have in his mind an ideal sound or quality of sonority for Debussy that he tried to make an orchestra achieve? Should the conductor aim at a particular balance of clarity, warmth and ‘atmosphere’ in pursuing an idiomatic characterization of the music? To read some commentators, especially on our side of the Channel, you would think only they had the keys to unlock this mystery; some behave as though they had invented the subject of French music. Not infrequently Boulez is found too cool; but I am one of his admirers in Debussy, always have been, and cannot tear myself away from his Cleveland CDs.

‘You know, all these discussions are very funny to me because they relate not to the text but to ideas about the text. It goes without saying that Debussy’s is not at all the orchestration of Mahler or Stravinsky, so you have to find the sound which fits the writing. But to talk of so much mysteriousness, or clarity, or this or that, is quite foreign to my view of things. If you have a passage for, say, two clarinets and strings, I want to hear the melodic lines and the balance of sound must be clearly observed; but you don’t ask the clarinettists to play in this way or that. It comes down to your relationship with the orchestra, and this is the interesting thing. In any orchestra, elements will be distinctive. You have to listen, first, and take what you think you can take, what you can work with, which will probably be on a very high level. Your two clarinets will not be babies! You take their personalities and mould them with yours. So, as the conductor, going from one orchestra to another, the results will never be exactly the same. In each case, there will be a mysterious meeting of personalities – naturally, the meeting goes better with some than with others. This is not so easy to explain clearly, but I believe it’s in this way that one achieves something worthwhile. I have no desire to conduct all the orchestras in the world; I choose those with which I can identify, and after a while they know you and your gesture and what you want, and you adapt to each other, and even though you may not be working with them every other day it becomes established that things are not said because they do not need to be said.’

I ask whether there were any performances of Debussy he remembers with particular admiration when he was growing up, and mention Roger Desormiere. He learnt a lot from Desormiere (also Scherchen and Hans Rosbaud) but heard him do little Debussy and tells me instead about a performance of the Monteverdi Vespers. When we return to Debussy, he talks of his first piano teacher, a lady who gave him the Arabesques to learn, the first Debussy he knew. I get us back to Cleveland by tentatively asking him about the little connections I observe between some of the orchestral pieces: between the middle section of ‘Nuages’ and L’apres-midi, and the repeated trumpet call in ‘Sirenes’ and the one at the beginning of La mer. He pounces on these.

‘Yes, the connections are there and indeed some of the motifs are practically the same. I think in all major composers one can find features of this kind: it’s what I call the gesture of the composer. Some composers acquire it near the beginning of their career, others develop it only later. In Stravinsky it’s almost permanently there.’

He is pleased to have recorded Fireworks. It was written in 1909 as a late wedding present for Maximilian Steinberg, a fellow pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov who became his son-in-law. This is a makeweight (with the Four Studies) to Boulez’s DG recording of Firebird with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (11/93). The performances are full of zest and I prefer this disc to his other recent one of Stravinsky (9/92), with the Cleveland, where The Rite of Spring and Petrushka are almost too immaculate for their own good.

Feu d’artifice and the Scherzo fantastique are the two pieces which come just before Firebird: and although they are not yet completely characteristic (nor is Firebird, one could say), you already find in them Stravinsky’s virtuosity with the instruments. It’s amazing how soon he was at ease with orchestral writing – but that was Rimsky’s legacy of course. Feu d’artifice is very brilliant and it introduces us to the world of Firebird and beyond. Not just a minor piece in my opinion – you have to have heard it to be aware of the birth of the genius of Stravinsky. I think Diaghilev was very clever – it was after hearing this piece that he commissioned Firebird.’

We move on to Bartók, staying with the Chicago Symphony. Boulez has coupled (DG, 3/94) the Concerto for Orchestra with the Four Orchestral Pieces, Op 12, which I knew not at all well; their exceptional quality has been a discovery. They were written in 1912 but not orchestrated until 1921, as if Bartók thought he hadn’t a hope of getting them performed: and I ask Boulez whether Bartók’s idea of writing a set of orchestral ‘pieces’ at this time might have owed something to the examples of Berg (Op 6), Schoenberg (Op 16) and Webern (Opp 6 and 10) – though I haven’t looked up all the dates. He thinks I might be right at least as far as Schoenberg is concerned.

‘I doubt whether he would have known the Webern, and Berg was very little performed at this time. But Schoenberg yes, I guess he would have looked at the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op 16. And don’t forget Stravinsky. I like these Op 12 pieces very much and don’t know why they aren’t more often performed. Bartók’s style here is close to Bluebeard’s Castle, or to The Wooden Prince; the elements of the language are much the same. I think they can be compared to Firebird in the output of Bartók. The most original Bartók is still to come but they show the way he was going, and I think they’re one of the most interesting pieces in the repertoire’.

In the course of 1995 the tally of his Bartók recordings for DG with the Chicago Symphony will increase to four. Now in Chicago surely there is a tradition of performing Bartók, from Fritz Reiner through Georg Solti to this day, so to do Bartók there with this great orchestra is doubtless more than a circumstantial choice?

‘Yes, you are right – not that I would reject the idea of ‘sharing’ this repertoire and doing some of it elsewhere, which could also be interesting. And I’m not exactly Hungarian! I do think it essential to do the vocal works in that language: it’s so tied to the music, to the rhythmical writing especially, with the prosody of Hungarian (as it has been explained to me) giving accentuation always on the first syllable: which is typical and seems to be reflected even in Bartók’s music without words. As to the Cantata profana [DG, 9/93], it’s largely ignored, I don’t know why [if you’ve heard it sung in English, that could be a reason, I suggest]; it seems to me one of his strongest works, and the symbolism of the text is interesting. And why, these days, do only the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin and so miss the marvellous music at the end of the score which is hardly known? There may have been reasons in the past to play only the suite but why mutilate Bartók now?’

I pose a deliberately provocative question: if Boulez’s mission is to illuminate the important works of our century, to bring the twentieth century fully into the light, as he has put it, why conduct Mahler? Music of the past, falling outside the Boulez canon surely? No, I am wrong, and in the course of a wide-ranging reply he describes aspects of French musical life as he has observed them since he first arrived in Paris as a Conservatoire student in 1942 and touches on key points throughout the length of his conducting career – indeed on his reasons for taking up conducting.

‘It is true that I did not discover Mahler when I was young. During the War his music was not performed at all in France because he was a Jew. After the Liberation and until 1958, when I left France, the only works I heard were Das Lied von der Erde and the Fourth Symphony. Two pieces, and that was it. In Germany, in Baden-Baden [where Boulez went to live], I discovered Mahler through Hans Rosbaud. He did the Ninth Symphony at the Südwestfunk, which I did not know at all [Boulez’s career as an orchestral conductor began with the Südwestfunk Orchestra]. Later, I began to conduct Mahler in London with the BBC Symphony – the Fifth Symphony. By then I had come to know the music of the Second Viennese School quite well and so I came to Mahler in a sort of backwards trajectory, backwards from Berg. I had conducted Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Op 6, quite early but I didn’t relate them; Mahler was the missing link! The origin of Berg’s inspiration is so often in Mahler, and now I can’t conceive musical history in this century without this link.

‘You know the French were not keen on Austro-German music. After Wagner there was a lot of hostility to it on the part of French musicians, as a result of the wars of 1870, 1914-18 and 1939-45. Even Strauss was not much performed – maybe only Rosenkavalier and Till Eulenspiegel. And even Till Eulenspiegel not so often: we had our own equivalent to that – L’apprenti sorcier by Dukas, which was Till Eulenspiegel, so to speak, à la française! In the history of musical performance in France there were some absolutely monumental omissions. Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces had to wait 43 years before being performed here (in 1957, by the Südwestfunk) and his Op 3 String Quartet waited 45. Wozzeck was not given at the Opera in Paris in a French production (as opposed to a visiting one, that’s to say) until 1963, can you imagine, when I conducted it [and Jean-Louis Barrault produced]. Webern’s Passacaglia, Op 1, composed in 1908, had its first Paris performance in 1958! [I begin to murmur something about there being post-war lethargy and indifference on the part of the musical ruling class in Britain too, but Boulez sweeps on.] And then, when there were performances just after the war [he mentions Pierrot lunaire, the Chamber Concerto of Berg and Webern’s Symphony Op 21] they were by devoted people who were incompetent as conductors. You know, you had the score before you and you listened and you thought, is the score wrong or are the people wrong? The performances were simply not rehearsed in the right hands to the proper level.’

‘You know, there was a radical revolution in my thinking about Webern. I was always attracted by the organization and structure of the language but I was not at first aware of the expressivity, of the phrasing you have to give – a phrasing which goes with the dynamic and the rhythm. When I listened to my early performances I began to think them terribly stiff, disorganized. It is the continuity which is all-important. The canonic writing may be fascinating but it is only a tool. The audience should be able to follow – maybe not every note but certainly the trajectory of the music. And that’s not easy, not for them, nor for the musicians, until they are familiar with the language.

‘The Ensemble InterContemporain has a majority of players who are permanently there and they have done these pieces for a long time. They understand the music and for them, Webern’s is a normal language. I don’t need to give explanations. It was the same when I was with the BBC Symphony Orchestra – in a wide range of 20th-century repertoire they were aware of the stylistic approach. And when you have that awareness as a basis you can make a real performance.’

At the end of this year we can look forward to some late Webern from Boulez with the BBC Singers and the Berlin Philharmonic. Late Webern is a different kettle of fish, or at any rate a new challenge, because these works are so rarely done by anybody. The Five Movements, Op 5, could be said to be in players’ blood by now but from these to the two cantatas  and the Orchestral Variations… Boulez makes a comparison between early Mondrian and late. He plans to do them three or four times, if he can, before the recording.

There is the same unhurried thoroughness with the Ensemble InterContemporain in more recent repertoire. Look out this summer for an all-Birtwistle CD: Secret Theatre, Tragoedia, Five Distances, and the Three Settings of Paul Celan. An excellent Ligeti issue of the three solo concertos is already out and has been enthusiastically reviewed. ‘We have done the Piano Concerto in particular [soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard] quite a lot, and the idiom is now familiar to our musicians. It’s in the memory and after so many performances I hardly have to rehearse – it goes by itself. There is a kind of organic contact with the music. People compliment us and say we perform Ligeti without apparent effort and I tell them, well maybe, but the first rehearsal was not so amazing.’ Boulez finds the two most recent concertos especially interesting from the rhythmical point of view.

We talk of Messiaen and of his delight in performing Chronochromie, a very difficult piece, with a crack American orchestra (Cleveland) for a change, instead of with a specialist ensemble. Turangalîla may be the limit of such orchestras’ previous experience of Messiaen he thinks, but don’t believe people who tell you that the great American orchestras are wonderful in the central repertoire but not beyond. They are pretty wonderful there too – or as he puts it, ‘absolutely without problems’.

Even more welcome, to my mind, would be some recordings of Boulez’s own music. But he is in no hurry. ‘I am careful, and there too there is a kind of organic development at work – it takes its time. But recordings will come.’ Piano music and Le marteau sans maitre should be out next month; Explosante… fixe was recorded after the performances by the Ensemble InterContemporain in Salzburg and Edinburgh last summer; and Rêpons, the harvest of his years as Director of IRCAM, will have been recorded by the time these words are read. There are no plans yet for the cantata Le visage nuptial, one of his finest works, but I feel cheered: this is the man who (for me) not only embodies the conscience of contemporary music in Europe since 1945 but has produced a rich and distinguished body of work, and his first claim on us should be as a composer. It’s good that some initiatives reflecting that achievement are under way.

And as a conductor, will there be some new initiatives? What about opera? ‘I shall do Moses and Aron in Amsterdam this October and in Salzburg the year after. It will be with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra which I’ve not conducted since 1967.’ And perhaps some other Schoenberg? – we haven’t talked about him much, have we? ‘I should like very much to do Gurrelieder again; also Erwartung; and perhaps the stage pieces Die glückliche Hand and Von heute auf morgen, which I’ve been touring with the Ensemble InterContemporain. Von heute auf morgen may not be the best Schoenberg but why not do it – I believe there’s only been one recording of it and that was centuries ago.’

The work that does keep returning to our conversation is Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces. ‘I did them with the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg last year and I must say, I was very happy. I should love to record them.’ Some representatives of the VPO have also suggested Bruckner, and he is interested. ‘You know when I was first invited to Bayreuth and Wieland Wagner asked me to do Parsifal I was hesitant, and then I thought: I am not more stupid than anyone else, so why should I not try? If I do some Bruckner with the Wiener Philharmoniker there could be an exchange and I would learn something from them. We shall see.’

We have talked for more than an hour but he is in no hurry to end the conversation. I am given a blow-by-blow account of the attempt, from the end of the 1970s, to set up the Cite de la Musique as part of the reanimation of La Villette; also his hopes for it and an outline of the forthcoming activities. Around 1986 people tried to stop it (‘people of the first incompetence, and mean and nasty too’) and the politics leave me gasping. The new opera house was to have been here, instead of at the Bastille (‘with the dire consequences we know of’). The plans for the Cite have been radically revised but it is looking good, and I say that high culture in Paris seems to be alive and well insofar as Boulez is its guardian and propagator. You have to fight the whole time, he replies – like Sisyphus, you’re always pushing the boulder uphill. I hardly know this part of Paris. What was here before? ‘Les abattoirs! Let us hope it does not become the slaughter-house of music!’

I have brought a book of Boulez’s essays with me and later that evening come across in it a remark attributed to Berg: ‘New music should be played as though it were classical, and classical music should be played as though it were new’. This has evidently driven Boulez’s performing career and continues to do so. As always it is ‘work in progress’ and for the moment I think we can leave him there.

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