Pierre Boulez is not usually associated with the music of Mozart. The French composer/conductor is one of the preeminent post-war musical artists with a reputation for being a doctrinaire proponent of modernism especially as exemplified by the serialism of Anton Webern. Boulez is also strongly identified with the musical research of Olivier Messiaen under whom he studied and whose music he has long championed. Clarity of structure and transparency of line, a steely metrical precision, rhythmic agility and a fierce respect for the composers’ intentions as notated in the musical score are the hallmarks of Boulez’s conducting style. At first glance the sheer sonorous beauty, emotional ambiguity and operatic lyricism of Mozart’s music would appear to be traits ill-suited for Boulez’s putatively unsympathetic baton. In fact these are traits shared by several modern composers such as Ravel and Debussy whose music Boulez has frequently conducted, recording such supreme examples of their music that they are considered interpretive exemplars.
Mozart’s use of wind instruments in his piano concertos of the 1780s was so novel as to be considered revolutionary. Several of them feature such lengthy and brilliant obbligato passages for the woodwinds that they overshadow the piano part. Musicians ever since have jokingly referred to these pieces as concertos for wind instruments with piano accompaniment. Mozart’s writing for bassoons and oboes is of a shimmering beauty, with all of the lyrical expressiveness of the human voice. The pattern for this excellence was probably formulated in his Serenade in B flat Major for 13 wind instruments “Gran Partita”, K361/370a, composed 1781-84 and first performed in Vienna in 1784.
Mozart labored on a lengthy working out of numerous woodwind combinations in this serenade, experimenting with new sonorities, discovering a new world of instrumental contrasts, sounds and moods. He engages in a kind of landscape portraiture in this piece, using the “colors” of the woodwinds as if they were oil paints whose characteristics can be broadly varied on palette and canvas.
Boulez is attracted to these very aspects of the Serenade; the richness and proliferation of ideas which he considers similar to Berg’s intentions when writing the companion piece on this CD, the Chamber Concerto (Kammerkonzert) for piano, violin and 13 wind instruments. Berg composed his work between 1923 and 1925. Both pieces have achieved classic status. Berg used a twelve-tone row and several numerological devices when composing this craggy chamber concerto, filling the work with mystery. But his intention of wallowing in the beauties of woodwind sonorities appears to have been the same as Mozart’s a century and a half earlier.
Boulez leads the brilliant Ensemble Intercontemporain in both pieces adding Mitsuko Uchida on piano and Christian Tetzlaff on violin in the Berg chamber concerto. Both works are superbly played, the musicians of the Ensemble Intercontemporain providing the necessary lyricism and emotional ambiguity to the Mozart Serenade. Boulez emphasizes the sheer sonic beauty of the work, using the woodwinds to provide short brush strokes as he fills in the canvas. The Berg is given a luminous and slightly obscure reading, with Uchida and Tetzlaff acting as impromptu “gate-crashers” as they hover around the piece, adding to its mystery. It is hard to imagine either piece being better played than they are on this CD. It is interesting to note that the two finest recordings of the Mozart Serenade I’ve heard are by two conductors renowned for their interpretations of modern music. The Boulez reading is similar to a superb recording on Sony’s budget Essentials line made by the former Stravinsky amanuensis and modernist specialist Robert Craft. The timeless brilliance of the Mozart serenade could be given no greater approbation than that.
The sound quality of this CD is superb; featuring a clarity and warmth that approaches SACDs in its beauty of tone, presence and sonic spaciousness. Several recent DGG and Decca CDs as distributed by Universal (including this one) have been packaged in the rounded jewel box usually containing their higher priced brethren. This is somewhat confusing and whether it represents some sort of future convergence of the two media or merely an excess of these jewel cases in the warehouse, be aware of this confluence of cases.
– – Mike Birman