Composer-Conductor Pierre Boulez At 85 He's been at the forefront of contemporary music and conducting for more than half a century. Marking his 85th birthday this spring, a number of new Boulez CDs and DVDs have been released. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews three of the latest.


Music Reviews

Composer-Conductor Pierre Boulez At 85

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Composer and director Pierre Boulez has been a hero of the avant-garde for more than half a century. To celebrate his 85th birthday this year, a number of new CDs and DVDs have been released that include at least one major piece of music Boulez has never recorded commercially. These releases make our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz very happy.

(Soundbite of song, "Symphony in Three Movements")

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Thats the chilling opening of "Symphony in Three Movements," a piece Stravinsky composed for the New York Philharmonic during World War II, which he referred to as his War Symphony. Its pounding, biting rhythms echo his notorious pre-World War I ballet, "The Rite of Spring."

SCHWARTZ: The most celebrated conductor of Stravinsky's music, after Stravinsky himself, some people would say even ahead of Stravinsky is Pierre Boulez whose latest Stravinsky recording, one of his best is a live performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra released on CSO Resound, the orchestra's own label. The CD also includes Stravinsky's complete "Pulcinella," not just the abbreviated Suite, which leaves out the charming, sexy songs. Stravinsky composed this scintillating commedia dell'arte ballet for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

Stravinsky himself regarded "Pulcinella" as his first neo-classical work, both his discovery of the past, and his transformation of it. He boldly took stole - themes he thought were all by the 18th-century Italian composer Pergolesi, though it turned out some of them were actually by a number of other minor composers. But even though the tunes themselves aren't by Stravinsky, his syncopated rhythms and dazzling, even hilarious combinations of instruments make "Pulcinella" one of his most original, most modern, most 'Stravinskyan' scores. And in the hands of Boulez and the Chicago Symphony, one of his most sparkling.

(Soundbite of song, "Pulcinella")

On a new DVD, "Inheriting the Future of Music," you can watch Boulez working on Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" with young conductors and players at the Lucerne Festival Academy in Switzerland. They adore him because he doesn't condescend to them. And not a note escapes his attention.

Mr. PIERRE BOULEZ (Conductor): One, two, three four. One-two.

(Soundbite of clapped hands)

Mr. BOULEZ: Two, three, four. And then...

What do you want here, Otto? I stop now, you know, because youre not thats not the feeling too... What you want? Not the Mozart piano. On the first (unintelligible) you have the small accent.

OTTO: Yeah.

Mr. BOULEZ: Tah(ph), and then you have to show it because thats one, two, three, one, pah(ph). You know?

OTTO: Yeah. And what suggestion did you have?

Mr. BOULEZ: Every detail is that important. Because suddenly, your pah, pah, pah, pah. Some they are repeating and then suddenly suspended, tah.

OTTO: Yeah.

Mr. BOULEZ: And nobody moves, only the woodwinds.

OTTO: I was yeah, suspended but not accent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOULEZ: What? Suspended what you want but I mean I want the accent...

OTTO: Accent. Yeah.

Mr. BOULEZ: ...and then the chord, you know?

OTTO: Yeah.

Mr. BOULEZ: Okay.

SCHWARTZ: I wish every conductor would take Boulezs advice about finding gestures that convey musical information without being either excessive or too recessive.

The new Boulez recording I'm most excited about is a live performance from 1996 of music he isn't generally associated with, and if you didn't know it was Boulez, you might guess some conductor born in Vienna. It's Haydns last symphony, number 104, called the "London" because thats where it was commissioned and written and the orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic.

Boulez is famous for his amazing ear. He lets you hear every detail. But there are two other Boulez qualities he isn't often given credit for. One is his innate and effortless sense of the right style. This symphony for a change actually sounds Viennese. The other is size. Too many Haydn performances seem small-scale, miniature and tinkly. But Boulez really conveys the grandeur as well as the delicacy of Haydn's magnificent conception.

(Soundbite of symphony, "London")

SCHWARTZ: At 85, and not for the first time, Boulez has announced that he would be cutting back on conducting to devote more time to composing. Of course, we want to hear more of his own music. But since he's the most insightful and incisive conductor now alive, how can our reaction to this decision not be bitter-sweet?

BIANCULLI: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where he is this years recipient of the Chancellors Award for Distinguished Scholarship.

Congratulation, Lloyd.

He reviewed CDs and DVDs featuring Pierre Boulez released in celebration of his 85th birthday.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download Podcasts of our show at

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(Soundbite of music)

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