This CD celebrates the fact that this year Pierre Boulez will be 85 -- can you believe that of this one-time enfant terrible? -- and is being fêted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, designated for this season as the Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus, having held the Principal Guest Conductor title since 1995. He began conducting a series of 'birthday' concerts last year (2009) and has brought the orchestra to Carnegie Hall with much of the music on this disc. This hybrid SACD, released on the orchestra's own label CSO:Resound, contains parts of two Chicago Symphony Hall concerts featuring music by Stravinsky, a composer Boulez has always had a special relationship with.
The 'Symphony in Three Movements' was written in 1942-45 to a commission by the New York Philharmonic, his first major work after coming to live in the United States. Neoclassical in form and substance, it is dry as a martini and quite as bracing. There are, as Boulez remarks in the booklet interview, some elements reminiscent of 'Rite of Spring' in the first movement, but the second movement is pure neoclassicism. And we're back to astringency and impeccable taste in the final movement until the conclusion which is Rite-ish again. An impressive work that is, perhaps, an acquired taste but one that grows into love on further acquaintance. Boulez and the CSO are strikingly fresh and clean in their interpretation.
'Four Études' started in non-orchestral form. The first three were originally for string quartet (Three Pieces for String Quartet, 1914) and the fourth was, unusually, originally composed for piano roll in 1917. The orchestral version was premièred in 1930 by Ernest Ansermet. It really is hard, given the wholly original orchestration of these pieces, to credit that they were originally for string quartet or for pianola. The first three were written in the period right after 'Rite of Spring' and obviously Stravinsky was trying for something entirely new, and indeed these were some of his first forays into the neoclassical world. The first is a lopsided Russian march with some foreshadowing of 'Les Noces', the second is witty and sardonic, the third a kind of hymn. The fourth begins with a brilliant extended fanfare and goes on to orientalisms with some echoes of 'Petrushka'. The CSO are brilliant here. Boulez has the ability to convey clarity of construction in tandem with Stravinsky's muted but present wit and, dare I say it, heart.
The glory, though, of this disc is the live performance (recorded March 3, 2009 at Symphony Hall) of 'Pulcinella'. This work, usually given as the much shorter Suite, is given complete, and wonder of wonders, the booklet includes the complete sung Italian texts with English, French and German translations (sadly, a rarity these days). 'Pulcinella' (1919, commissioned by Diaghilev, première led by Answermet) is a ballet with vocal soloists, based on the commedia dell'arte character Pulcinella (Punch, Polichinelle). It is based on music from the Italian baroque; originally it was thought that music was by Pergolesi, but in fact is from music by Domenico Gallo, Carlo Ignazio Monza, and possibly Alessandro Parisotti and Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer. But the orchestration and continuity are pure Stravinsky, and this music has become one of Stravinsky's most beloved neoclassical works, notable to many for such things as the raucous trombone smears, clever use of piccolo and double bass, and wholly modern harmonies and rhythms. In this performance the sterling soloists are mezzo Roxana Constaninescu, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen. This is, without question, the best recorded performance of the complete 'Pulcinella' I've ever heard; that it is live makes it all the more electric. Recorded sound is state-of-the-art in both SACD and standard CD.
Laudable on all counts. Don't hesitate.