Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Historical Stravinsky Program Led by Boulez

courtesy of Naxos of America

Last month IDIS, the house label of the Istituto Discographico Italiano (Italian discography institute), released a new CD entitled Boulez conducts Stravinsky. Those who know about Pierre Boulez know that there is no shortage of recordings of him conducting the music of Igor Stravinsky. Indeed, Boulez’ interest in Stravinsky predates the cultivation of his reputation as a conductor, dating back to the concerts he organized for the Domaine Musical during the Fifties.

Nevertheless, this recent release has major historical significance. It is a recording of a concert performance that Boulez gave with the Orchestre National de France of the score for the ballet in two parts, The Rite of Spring. Boulez presented this program on June 18, 1963 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the score’s premiere performance, which had resulted in a riot. To emphasize the significance of that anniversary, Boulez present the work in the same venue that had seen the premiere, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. As might be guessed, the audience reaction was again extreme; but this time the extreme was on the positive side, doing much to firm up Boulez’ reputation as a rising conductor of note.

(By way of context, 1963 was also the year in which Boulez conducted his first opera. This was a Paris Opera production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck directed by Jean-Louis Barrault. I, for one, will be curious to see if a recording of that debut ever comes out of the woodwork!)

Furthermore, Boulez decided that his entire program should be devoted to Stravinsky’s music. Thus, in addition to honoring the legacy of The Rite, Boulez scheduled four more orchestral works, all of which were not receiving very much attention in 1963 (not that they are receiving much more attention these days). One of these was a piece he had conducted during his Domain Musical days, the “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” (presumably in the 1947 version he had prepared for Domain Musical). Another connection to those days could be found in his selection of the four orchestral études that Stravinsky had published in 1928. These were arrangements of his three pieces for string quartet (whose Domain Musical performance Boulez had organized) followed by the “Étude pour pianola,” which became the last orchestral étude entitled “Madrid” and was subsequently published in a version for two pianos prepared by Stravinsky’s son Soulima.

The remaining two works on the program may well have been “first contact” experiences for Boulez. “Le roi des étoiles” (the king of the stars) is a very early piece (1912) setting a text by the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont. The vocalists were part of the resident chorus for Radiodiffusion-Télévision Français, prepared by chorus master Rene Alix. San Francisco readers may know that Michael Tilson Thomas has been a champion of this piece since the days of his tenure as Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra during the first half of the Seventies. The final selection on the album is Stravinsky’s three-movement cantata, A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer, the one composition that Boulez included on the program that presented Stravinsky’s use of serial techniques.

Taken as a whole, this is a prime example of wish-I-had-been-there programming. In the absence of a time machine, this new IDIS release is the most viable alternative. Attentive listeners are likely to come away feeling more informed about both Stravinsky and Boulez!

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