This Deutsche Grammophon disc contains three pieces by the great French composer, conductor, and theorist. The first two pieces are writen for piano, "Notations" is performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and on "Structures pour deux pianos, Livre II" Aimard is accompanied by Florent Boffard. The third, "...explosante-fixe..." is for solo MIDI flute (Sophier Cherrier), two flutes (Emmanuelle Orphele and Pierre-Andre Valade), electronics, and orchestra, here the Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Boulez himself. It should be notated that the recording was re-released in 2005 in the "Echo 20/21" series for the composer's 80th birthday, and if artwork and packaging matter to you, the new edition may be preferable to the original 1996 disc.
"Notations" (1945) is a series of twelve piano miniatures written in the very early days of Boulez's career and is fact the earliest piece he has published. Initially neglected after their composition, two Notations (5 and 9) were quietly used in "Pli selon pli", and then the work was fully uncovered in 1970s, when the composer embarked on orchestrating them. While the orchestral versions--much longer and of course with a greater range of colour--are impressive, the original piano Notations are a delight as well. Each consists only of twelve measures, featuring a twelve-tone row in much the same fashion as the work of Anton Webern. In spite of certain formal commonalities, however, the pieces widely range from free (e.g. 1) to tightly rhythmic (4, 6), contemplative (3) to frenetic (2). If you like Gyorgy Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata", you'll find this quite enjoyable. Aimard's performance here is so confident and poised, the man is a titan of contemporary piano repertoire.
"Structures, Livre II" (1956-61) shows that a decade later Boulez had come out from Webern's shadow and was expanding serialism with original contributions. Boulez had caught John Cage's fascination with musical chance operations, and so much of the material is left to the discretion of the performer (a feature shared by his Piano Sonata No. 3 of the same era). What is obligatory, however, is rigidly notated; the piece features serialisation of all elements, rhythm and dynamics too, not just pitch. Boulez even specifies the exact height of the pedal. Thus, the work is a strange combination of freedom and severity. This is not Boulez at his most accessible: the music of the two pianos is interrelated, but in not so charming a fashion as Stockhausen acheived in his "Gruppen" for three orchestras. For a more entertaining example of Boulez's thought during the mid-1950s, I'd recommend the piano sonata.
"...explosante-fixe..." (1991-93), taking its title from a line in Andre Breton's NADJA, was first conceived in the early 1970s when Boulez oversaw the founding of IRCAM and was interested in how cooperation between electronic technicians and composers might serve music. However, the state of the technology didn't satisfy Boulez at the time, and the work was finally presented anew twenty years later. In this piece, one of Boulez's most eerie and colourful, the concerto concept is vastly expanded through electronics: one MIDI flute performs great feats of sound high above the capabilities of the other instruments, while two normal flutes double its acrobatics in imperfect imitation and an orchestra fills out the sound. The work has an elegant formal scheme: it begins with two "transitory" sections derived from elementary material, and the elementary material is finally presented at the end, so that the piece seems to go from a wide cloud to a point. In between, there are two electronic interstitial passages. Yet, this piece requires no real formal understanding of musicology, it just sounds great. The early wall of sound gives way to, as it is often describes, a house-of-mirrors, which in turn leads to a liberation of all elements with thundering percussion and roaring violin, and the final "Originel" is shy and innocent, As usual, the Ensemble Intercontemporain give a flawless performance and show themselves as the premier interpreters of Boulez's work.
All in all, "...explosante-fixe..." is certainly the most accessible piece Boulez has written and so this disc a fine introduction to his soundworld. Established fans will love this reading of the piano pieces.