Collecting five CDs for about the price of three, this set of Boulez recordings is without parallel among the conductor's new-music releases. Imagine getting Boulez's celebrated single CD of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia and Eindrücke and his equally impressive single CD of Arnold Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande and Variations for Orchestra, bundled with four pivotal Elliott Carter works, Sir Harrison Birtwistle's electrifying …AGM…, Gérard Grisey's Modulations, Iannis Xenakis's Jalons, Hugues Dufourt's Antiphysis, and Brian Ferneyhough's Funerailles, and you have an idea how far this set stretches.
The greatest of Mozart's wind serenades and the toughest of Alban Berg's major works might seem an unlikely pairing, but in an interview included with the sleeve notes for this release, Pierre Boulez points up their similarities. Both works are scored for an ensemble of 13 wind instruments (with solo violin and piano as well in the Berg) and both include large-scale variations as one of their movements - and Boulez makes the comparisons plausible enough in these lucid performances. It's rare to hear him conducting Mozart, too, and if the performance is a little brisker and more strait-laced than ideal, the EIC's phrasing is a model of clarity and good taste. It's the performance of the Berg, though, that makes this such an important issue; both soloists, Mitsuko Uchida and Christian Tetzlaff, are perfectly attuned to Boulez's approach - they have given a number of performances of the Chamber Concerto before - and the combination of accuracy and textural clarity with the highly wrought expressiveness that is the essence of Berg's music is perfectly caught.
The years have seen Pierre Boulez record for CBS, Erato, EMI, and Philips, among other labels, but his most consistent and critically praised work has appeared on Deutsche Grammophon, where he has conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and his own Ensemble InterContemporain in many successful performances. These ensembles are heard on this trimline, six-CD box set of Igor Stravinsky's major works, which brings together Boulez's recordings of L'oiseau de feu, Petrushka, Le Sacre du printemps, L'histoire du Soldat, the symphonies, concertos, and other works, recorded between 1980 and 1996. As one of the leading champions of modernism, first as a composer and essayist, then as a prominent conductor, Boulez is regarded as an authority on Stravinsky's oeuvre, and it is difficult to imagine many conductors who have a better understanding of the technical and stylistic issues that affect performances. Boulez is also famous for his precision and meticulousness, which make the details stand out clearly in the rhythmically complex and texturally dense orchestral scores of the ballets, and yet seem so delicate and exact in the concertos and pieces for smaller ensembles.
The three works presented here reveal distinctly different phases of Arnold Schoenberg's development, each a critical point of departure. In the Pieces (5) for Orchestra (1909), Schoenberg's atonal language appears full-blown and marks a clear break with tonality. For the first time, Schoenberg places content over form and dispenses with any pretenses toward classical objectivity or balance.
…Whatever reservations one might harbor about this or that individual performance, it is unlikely that this set as a whole will be surpassed in the near future. It belongs in every serious music library, private or public.