So by whose definition is this 13-CD anthology ‘complete’? The front cover may proudly trumpet ‘Pierre Boulez: Oeuvres Complètes’ but flipping the box around tells a different story. Nowhere there that magic word ‘complete’. Instead, just above where we’re told that the composer himself supervised this edition, you read ‘Pierre Boulez: Work in Progress’, which rather whiffs of a carefully chosen form of words agreed after long and pained telephone conversations between Boulez HQ and DG. Record companies like ‘definitive’ products, a cultural done deal ripe for the packaging. But Boulez, presumably, baulked at the notion of career retrospective, drawing a grand valedictory metaphorical double bar‑line around his work.
And this wording does give Boulez plenty of wiggle-room. Airbrushed out of consideration, although readily available elsewhere on CD, are the sins of his youth. Polyphonie X was proto-Structures, Boulez’s first attempt to make total serialism fly within an instrumental context. The history books invariably cite it and the work’s 1951 premiere at Donaueschingen ruffled plenty of feathers. But you’re not going to hear it here. And ditto an early orchestral/electronic piece Poésie pour pouvoir (1958) and a youthful dummy-run at what would evolve into the final section of Pli selon pli, Tombeau à la mémoire du Prince Max Egon zu Fürstenberg (1959).
Nor, sad to say, are there any signs of those new projects Boulez has been discussing in recent interviews. We’re still waiting for Waiting for Godot: The Opera (could Boulez’s cunning concept be that it’ll never show up?), further instalments of his orchestral Notations and a violin/orchestral piece involving Anne-Sophie Mutter. As the great man said, work in progress. But, even if you’re a got-it-all Boulez collector, there is enough new/rare material here to tempt you in. Two pieces – Improvisé – pour le Dr Kalmus and Une page d’éphéméride – were recorded specifically for this edition. Boulez has opted to include a live 2010 Dérive II rather than the recording he released in 2005; meanwhile, an excellent live Livre pour cordes cut with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1992 is rescued from the historical graveyard of VHS video, and a 2007 recording of the orchestral Notations with Ensemble Modern is heard for the first time on disc. There’s also a bonus disc of historical curios: the 1950 premiere of Le soleil des eaux, a notably light-on-its-pins Le marteau sans maître from 1964 and a Sonatine featuring flautist Severino Gazzelloni and Cage’s main piano man David Tudor.
But what does listening to wall-to-wall Boulez teach us about his art? If the clichés and accepted histories run deep – Boulez as revolutionary, fidgety progressive, a man always but a word away from an ideological punch-up – the myths and paranoid untruths flow ever deeper. Boulez never did set out to destroy tradition. He was no left-wing revolutionary (like Nono), nor an anarchist (like Cage). No, the shocking revelation this set forces us to confront is how aesthetically settled and refined Boulez’s language had become by the mid-1960s. By the time of his 1958 orchestral piece Figures – Doubles – Prismes, and certainly by the time he composed cummings is der Dichter in 1970, you broadly know what to expect of a Boulez composition. The details, of course, change and fluctuate, but there are no stylistic bolts from the blue.
Which are not, I suspect, words that would gladden Boulez’s heart. But I come to praise his music, not to bury it. The only tradition Boulez wanted to annihilate – and properly so – was the tradition of freeloading off tradition, of tepidly reheating gestures for which the historical imperative could no longer function.
And, quite honestly, if audiences can ‘get’ Debussy’s La mer and Jeux, I see no reason to fear the well-sequined harmonies and glitter-and-be-gay timbres of Boulez’s ‘…explosante‑fixe…’ or Dérive I. His sur Incises, for three pianos, three harps and three percussionists, is like a journey into the centre of an idea of Debussian textures long after the event, with Messiaen’s gamelan invocations pegged in the background. Even the notorious and crazily expensive-to-mount Répons for soloists, large ensemble and electronics – the joke being that it would be cheaper to send a Proms audience to Paris than bring Répons to the Proms – with its cheerfully chattering opening ensemble unisons and arrow-headed sense of urgent development, the harmony slowing down in the middle, bidding you in before Boulez works towards a conclusion, has a classic, traditional arc-like structure. Music like you always knew it was.
The early Boulez – particularly Book 1 of Structures, performed here with drill-bit might by the Kontarsky brothers – could feel like music collapsing towards automated mathematics, Boulez’s total serialism doing its worst; but, all these decades on, it’s time to cut the old boy some slack. The beauty of Structures lies in its powerful, sometimes eerie reconfiguration of the familiar piano, the gestural white canvas Boulez needed for what would come next: Le marteau sans maître, Piano Sonata No 3 and Pli selon pli. If pushed, though, I’d claim Rituel: in memoriam Bruno Maderna as his standout moment, especially in the cool ritual of this 1982 BBC SO performance; the emotional engagement with a fallen hero crashing into the objectifying power of Boulez’s music. Result: complete satisfaction.
Pierre Boulez at 70 (Gramophone, March 1995) by Stephen Plaistow
Pierre Boulez interview: Alan Blyth speaks to the composer for Gramophone in 1967
Face-to-face with Pierre Boulez: ‘Acquire and destroy, acquire and destroy, then go further’: Philip Clark's revealing interview with the composer and conductor from 2010
This article originally appeared in the Gramophone Awards issue 2013.