WORKS: Symphony of Psalms; Symphony in Three Movements; Symphonies of Wind Instruments
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 457 616-2
Boulez, the once-radical modernist, now cuts rather a traditional figure as he moves from one sleek orchestra to the next eliciting precise performances of standard repertoire. But if he is our current curator of 20th-century music, Stravinsky and his ilk are in safe hands. I think the older composer might have approved of these performances: there is penetrating sound, high tensile ensemble, dead-on intonation, clockwork rhythms. But when Stravinsky said to the Columbia Orchestra in the Sixties, with whom he recorded these works, ‘it must be as dry as possible, so that it can be heard’, he meant precision, but surely not this strangely neutralising effect Boulez brings. What his Symphony in Three Movements misses is the rough excitement in Stravinsky’s more imperfect reading: mercurial tempo changes in the first movement, the deeper sense of pain in the slow, and a crackling finale.
It is as if Boulez has cleaned up the old scores to perfection, but lost a little of their humanity. The final movement of the Symphony is too deliberate, too reserved. This is not a problem in that piercing masterpiece, Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The ritual sequences and glassy textures benefit from austerity measures. The Symphony of Psalms cuts a curious dash at its opening, as if it were the ballet not the church we were entering. The reflective second movement receives a reverent reading from the Berlin Radio Choir. But their sound is recessed, and colourless. Greater immediacy can be found on Solti’s final recording for Decca (released in 1999) with the Chicago SO. The movement’s long unwinding, with its poised choral cadence, is exquisite. Helen Wallace