[ DG 20/21 Boulez 2005 / CD ]
Release Date: Tuesday 28 June 2016
It was with Le Marteau sans maître, a setting of surrealistic poetry by René Char, that Boulez made his international breakthrough in the mid-1950s. The work, which looked far ahead into the compositional future, has lost none of its intense power to seduce the ear.
For this new recording with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Boulez couples this "classic" with ensemble pieces from the 1980s, Dérives 1 & 2, and again proves that razor-sharp calculation and sensuous power are no contradiction.
"Boulez interpreting his own works: that means a certain sobriety and severity but also a certain feeling for splendour and a wealth of colours"
(Die Presse, Vienna, on a Vienna Festival concert in May 2004).
Boulez: "Le Marteau sans maître" - "Dérive" 1 & 2
A glance at the half-century that has elapsed since the first performance of Le Marteau sans maître in Baden-Baden on 18 June 1955 suggests the kind of success story enjoyed by few 20th-century works. In spite of the horrendous demands that the piece places on its performers, audiences and critics alike accepted it with astonishing speed, while its qualities were evoked in glowing metaphors. As early as 1958 György Ligeti spoke of the "sensual, feline world of Le Marteau", while Adorno expressly defended it in the face of his own dictum that "new music grows old" and Stravinsky hailed it in 1957 as "the only truly significant work of this new age", while adding that "it will take a considerable time for people to recognize the importance of Le Marteau sans maître. For the present I'll not explain my admiration for it but merely offer a variation of Gertrude Stein's answer to the question as to why she liked Picasso's pictures - 'I like looking at them' - and say 'I like listening to Boulez.'" Fifty years later it should be possible to say without further ado what Stravinsky liked about the piece and what fascinates so many of its listeners.
First, there is the integration of very different instruments into an ensemble that was immediately heard and understood as a kind of model, often imitated but rarely equalled. Abstract sounds are used and balanced against each other, and the different cultures represented by these instruments are related to one another - the percussion instruments recall the impressions left by southeast Asian and African music, while the guitar, which is used here in an entirely new way, recalls the Japanese koto. These qualities lift the work out of its time and appeal to both the amateur and the connoisseur who stands in awestruck amazement at the link between two seemingly incompatible experiences: the strictly constructivist musical thinking of the German and Viennese tradition as mediated by Webern and the more ornamental and associative element derived from French music, especially Debussy and Messiaen.
Le Marteau sans maître consists of three interlocking cycles (see the track listing), all of them based on poems from René Char's anthology of the same name. These cycles differ greatly in terms of their weight and length. In L'Artisanat furieux Boulez strives to redefine the concept of melody, an aim most clearly apparent in the third movement, with its elaborately ornamented vocal line and its independent, almost rhapsodic flute "accompaniment". In Bourreaux de solitude the vocal element is completely merged with the instrumental element in what are initially strictly serial textures (the first part of movement 6). The composer's dramaturgical hold on his material gradually loosens, becoming almost associative and stemming from what he himself terms an "amalgamation" of words and notes, embracing the poem in its totality "from the pure sound substance to the actual intellectual ordering". The two versions of Bel édifice et les pressentiments not only combine these elements but extend them by means of a constant interplay of note complexes that appear to be wholly isolated, together with melodic phrases that create the impression of quotations, and passages of almost homophonic part-writing, to name only three of the wide range of "arrangements". Another striking feature of this third cycle is its extremely fluid tempo - the malleable exterior of a form of musical discourse that is as strict as it is rich in nuances.
It is also worth listening to the three cycles in isolation - the CD is the ideal medium for this: first, tracks A , C and G , then tracks B , D , F and H and, finally, tracks E and I. In this way, the listener will gain a clearer understanding not only of their different aims but also of the ingenious way in which they interlock. This is the first time that Boulez adopts an approach that was to characterize his compositional method as a whole, combining "open" formal elements - in other words, elements that cannot be predicted in advance - with others that are structurally predetermined in the very strictest sense. The result is a formal structure in which the past is reflected and further developed from a constantly changing standpoint.
But the abiding fascination of Le Marteau may also rest, not least, on the fact that René Char's poems, which at first sight seem highly hermetic, represent three different experiences of the modern age that complement each other in their antithetical nature: one is surreal and fantastical, another sombre and existentialist, and the third romantic and utopian. Boulez integrates them with each other in surprising fashion.
Salvatore Sciarrino once said that Boulez was "one of the few composers to possess the key to music theatre, namely, a vocal style that is entirely his own". But is it really any wonder that so highly self-critical a composer has not written a work of music theatre in spite of all the resolves and premature announcements by interested parties? Ultimately he appears to prefer to deal with self-imposed compositional questions, rather than being exposed to librettists, to say nothing of stage designers. In the course of the last two decades these questions have produced a whole series of different sequences of works.
Their shared title notwithstanding, Dérive 1 and Dérive 2 are in fact based on very different ideas and compositional processes. Dérive 1 (1984) takes as its starting point a six-note chord derived from the name of the Swiss patron of the arts Paul Sacher (the notes are E flat, A, C, B, E and D, which in German - and, in the case of the last note, French - nomenclature are Es-A-C-H-E-Re). Five further hexachords are derived from it in turn. This represents the entire harmonic repertory of the piece, the form of which could be described as that of a gradually changing perspective from the horizontal to the vertical and back again. In terms of its surface structure, it could almost be termed a didactic study, not least because numerous other technical details are clearly identifiable: there are six instruments, the rhythms are all related to the number six and so on. But this didactic side of the piece is overshadowed by its wholly unobtrusive, almost meditative gestural language, from which all materiality seems to have been removed. In fact the "Sacher chord" occurs frequently in Boulez's works from Eclat onwards, so that it would probably be more appropriate to speak of a snapshot or, to use a psychological simile, an inner monologue.
Dérive 2 (1988/2002), conversely, is based on what might be termed an anonymous set of examples that Boulez drew up in the context of his classes at the Collège de France. His starting point was works by Ligeti and Conlon Nancarrow and revolves around the phenomenon of periodicity and the way we perceive it. The examples in question were initially worked out on a computer so that they could be handled more easily, but in the process they developed a life of their own. Put at its simplest, this means that Boulez, who loathes repetition for repetition's sake, overlays several differently structured periodic processes, which blithely intersect, concealing their periodicity, rather than revealing it. Only at the end are these processes ironed out, as it were, making the paradoxical point that the surface of the piece is pellucid, while the periodic structure beneath it is completely obscured.
The comparatively sober technical title reflects the starting point of both works as a kind of experimental arrangement and involuntarily recalls Debussy's Etudes. In both cases the composer seems to be listening only to what the material has to offer.
"All three works are superbly rendered by Ensemble Intercontemporain, in sound well suited to the translucent nature of the instrumentation." (International Record Review June 2005)
"Boulez's fifth recording of Le marteau sounds more urgently volatile than ever in this superbly crafted performance (5/05)." (Gramophone)
Le Marteau sans maître