Stravinsky Orchestral Works
Boulez’s Stravinsky recordings from the 1990s have had a mixed press. Michael Oliver found his Cleveland Petrushka and Rite of Spring (9/92) ‘maximally detailed but minimally characterised’‚ and Rob Cowan had similar feelings about the Chicago Firebird (11/93)‚ reserving unqualified approval for the Four Etudes. Jonathan Swain‚ however‚ was impressed by the ‘purity’ of the Berlin Phil readings of Symphonies of Wind Instruments‚ Symphony of Psalms and Symphony in Three Movements (4/00). Everything on this newly issued disc except the Scherzo fantastique was recorded in 1996‚ the same year as the Berlin performances‚ and comparable virtues are soon apparent.
Indeed‚ ‘virtues’ might be too weak a word for the strengths of a performance of The Soldier’s Tale suite which shuns the easy‚ nudging underlining of sardonic wit and garish instrumental colour. There is usually more than a hint of pokerfaced underplaying in any Boulez interpretation‚ given his wholehearted commitment to the modernist project. Is the ‘Petit concert’ dangerously smooth‚ the ‘Grand choral’ disconcertingly sober? Such qualities make perfect sense in a reading which has plenty of character‚ as well as an instrumental virtuosity that avoids vulgarity yet is never excessively smooth. But it is Le chant du rossignol which is the disc’s finest achievement.
This work has long been a Boulez favourite‚ comparable to Debussy’s Jeux in its coherently episodic design‚ though much more radical than the Debussy in its determinedly noncumulative final stages. This performance has all Boulez’s intellectual discernment when it comes to balancing textures and juxtaposing tone colours‚ but it also provides an enthralling journey through the weird rituals of an exotic expressive world that Boulez himself reinvented as a composer in the decade after 1945. Here‚ as throughout‚ the DG sound has ideal transparency and a natural depth of perspective. Even if you are wedded to the much earlier‚ now bargainprice Boulez performance on Erato‚ or to the more recent Maazel on RCA‚ this one will prove hard to resist.
Le chant du rossignol puts the two earlier pieces into the shade. Scherzo fantastique (recorded in 1994) is an accomplished apprentice effort‚ played with a winning blend of buoyant rhythm and shapely melody. King of the Stars now sounds like an uneasy cross between old and new‚ aspiring to a radicalism for which Stravinsky had yet to find a convincing voice. It would fit better into a programme of his later religious and choral works‚ but its presence here does not seriously dilute the impact of a disc that shows Boulez – along with the Cleveland musicians and the DG engineers – at their formidable best. Why has it taken so long to release it?