This Deutsche Grammophon disc, released for the composer's 80th birthday year, features three ensemble works by Pierre Boulez, with one being what many see as his first masterpiece. The composer himself leads the Ensemble Intercontemporain in this IRCAM recording.
By the 1950s, Boulez had written a couple of oratorios in a very Webernian vein and some fiendishly difficult solo piano works that took the twelve-tone method to complete bleep-bloop abstraction (but still captivating to avant-garde aficionados). In 1955 he unveiled "Le Marteau sans maitre" for alto and an ensemble that at the time must have seemed revolutionary. Besides unpitched percussion, there is alto flute, viola, guitar, vibraphone and xylorimba. All instruments are squarely in the middle range, but have a dazzling array of sonorities. The nine-movement piece is in three interlocked cycles, each based around a vocal movement where a poem by Rene Char is delivered by the alto (here Hilary Summers), but the vocals are delivered less as a clear text and more as an extension of the instrumental sound. This is a gorgeous and highly varied piece, sounding like a fusion of 1950s lounge styling meets Balinese gamelan music and the strumming of the Japanese koto with some weird pitch organization, and even people who don't normally dig serialism will find parts of it catchy. On this latest recording, Boulez takes it noticeably slower than before, but I don't feel the result is lethargic and ruins the piece like, for example, the DG 20/21 recording of "Pli selon pli".
Pierre Boulez's music changed greatly in the 1960s and 1970s. While he has always remained a staunch serialist, faster tempos and a powerful sense of drive were increasingly woved into his music. "Derive" for small ensemble (1984) is a good example of the late Boulez. Scored for flute, A clarinet, violin, cello, vibrophone, and piano, the piece "derives" its harmonies from a six-note chord E-flat, A, C, B, E, and D, which in a mixed French-German-English nomenclature represents the name of Swiss music patron Paul Sacher. The same basis is used in "Eclat" and in "Messagesquisse", and in all the results are quite different. Here, "Derive" reminds one of the work of Magnus Lindberg, obsessed with the constant production of gorgeous harmonies and only occasionally letting melody creep in. The piece exists in an older recording recently reissued by Warner's budget line Apex, but while the quality of the performances is even, I think this new recording on DG is much more "alive" than there.
Boulez wrote "Derive 2" (2002) shows the influence of Carter and the late Ligeti, composers who wrote music of rhythmic ingenuity where each instrument is its own character. Each motion by one performer seems to spur another one on, and things quickly get quite complex, though with suprisingly gestalts and even a feel of allusion to tonality. One regrets that this recording is not the definitive take on the piece, for shortly after recording this Boulez premiered a new version which closes with a bold horn line that some critics have called Boulez's first real ending.
The liner notes are somewhat informative, but it is a real shame that they left out the figure in the old CBS recording's note, showing the relationships between the instruments in "Le Marteau" to explain why Boulez chose his unusual ensemble for that piece. Certainly anyone with some music theory, however limited, would be more satisfied with Dominique Jameaux's Pierre Boulez which describes all his pieces up to "Repons".
I think the best of recent Boulez is "...explosante-fixe..." and "Sur Incises", and that's why I give this disc with "Derive" and "Derive 2" only four stars, as they seem somewhat minor works, though still quite entertaining. Nonetheless, fans of 20th century music would do well to get a recording of "Le Marteau", either this one or the old CBS one (reissued on Sony).