BOULEZ: Rituel in memoriam Maderna (1974-1975). Notations I (1980). Notations II (1998). Notations IV (1980). Notations III (1980). Notations II (1980). Figures-Doubles-Prismes (1963-1968).
Orchestre National de Lyon/David Robertson, cond.
NAIVE MO 782163 (F) (DDD) TT: 62:50

For disciples of Boulez, the long wait has produced a stunningly recorded reward from Lyon, which puts to shame Paris-based producers and engineers. For that matter, is there a French conductor today with California-born David Robertson’s credentials and panache? The strides made in two years since his Ginastera CD of Y2K on Auvidis/Naïve, likewise by the orchestra and engineers, is altogether astonishing. But that Robertson should shine in a collection of Boulez’s music spanning a period from 1945 to 1998 ought not to surprise. For eight years before his appointment at Lyon, he was music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, joined at the hip to Boulez’s IRCAM.

So much for the good news. Now, about the music and its likelihood to disenchant the average classical music listener, even those who’ve learned to embrace Lutoslawski and Takemitsu and early Ligeti, which is not to neglect Messiaen et al. To begin with the earliest (and latest) music here, Boulez composed a dozen Notations for keyboard starting in 1945, when he achieved pan-European notoriety by denouncing Stravinsky as passé. Segue to 1980 when he orchestrated
I-IV of these, which Daniel Barenboim has been conducting in Chicago and elsewhere as much as Elliott Carter’s music. These are the “easiest” to assimilate, as in learn to live with even if the disc gathers dust. In 1998 the composer added Notations VII out of sequence, and still speaks at age 78 of finishing the rest.
Figures-Doubles-Prismes occupied him over a period of five years, 1963-68, in which the strings and percussion are surrounded by brass and winds (“dispersed” is Boulez’s word for the latter) to achieve “blending of timbres...a more effective exploitation of what already exists.” But he still considers it “a work in progress,” as much of his small repertoire continues to be.

To get there, however, not only do the five Notations precede it, the disc begins with Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, composed in 1974-75 for “huit groupes”—that is, “eight groups [of players spatially placed]”—except that Boulez in the notes keeps talking about “seven.” It is music tailor-made for SACD or DVD, although conventional stereophony using an HDCD player does an astonishing job of suggesting the plurality and placement of groups. The technical details of recording as well as the lucubrations of composition are outlined in an admirable brochure. For sheer sonic wizardry you may want to investigate this 26-minute piece, although musically in any conventional sense it gives you nothing to hang onto, and periodically bursts into a word I’m ashamed to use but know no other, “cacophony.” I never got to the end of several hearings, although you might. What it has to do to with the lamented Maderna, dead at 53 of cancer, I’m not sure; he was a more humanistic mid-century modernist, and a more proficient conductor than Boulez (at the time he wrote Rituel he was head of the NYPhil, which promptly nicknamed him “The French Correction” and continued to play out of tune as often as not).

I haven’t decided yet whether to keep this CD or not, simply for its achievement as a recording (and as further evidence of Robertson’s rising star on a world scale). But it is a trip—to where the listener must decide for himself, if he chooses. Auvidis/Naïve is not a budget label.

R.D. (August 2003)