Boulez, Webern

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COMPOSERS: Boulez,Webern
WORKS: Livre pour quatuor
PERFORMER: Parisii Quartet
Pierre Boulez essentially composed his six-movement Livre pour quatuor at the age of 23 in 1949, although the fourth movement, never quite finished, remains unperformed and unpublished. The other five movements — premiered piecemeal between 1955 and 1960, revised, withdrawn, un-withdrawn — still constitute one of the most challenging phenomena in the string quartet repertoire, for players as well as listeners. The Livre’s ancestry extends back through Webern and Bartók to Debussy, but its discourse – hardly concerned with the development of motifs, let alone melody, rather with ceaseless, mercurial textural and rhythmic elaborations that articulate the background harmonic structure — is relentlessly radical. Yet in a performance as good as this (which the Parisii Quartet prepared with Boulez’s advice) what surprises most is the coruscating virtuosity of the conception, the strong, vivid differentiation between movements, the varied characters (with even a sort of march in the second movement), the decisive beginnings and endings, and — to my ears — the frequent echoes of that almost as demanding work, Schoenberg’s String Trio. Here it’s Webern’s Trio, more sanctified by Boulez’s approval, that makes the natural coupling, its clarity almost Mozartian by the febrile standards of the Livre. Crystal-sharp sound and superb performances: transcendental technique in the service of music that at least sets itself transcendent goals, whether or not it achieves them. Calum MacDonald