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Pierre BOULEZ  > Pli selon pli
1. Don 
2. Improvisation I sur Mallarmé 
3. Improvisation II sur Mallarmé 
4. Improvisation III sur Mallarmé 
5. Tombeau
Ensemble intercontemporain
Christine SCHAEFFER, soprano
Pierre BOULEZ, direction

Back in 1996‚ when Pierre Boulez’s first recording of Pli selon Pli was reissued on CD (Sony Classical‚ 7/96)‚ I wondered whether he might record the work a third time ‘with one of his currently preferred American orchestras in Chicago or Cleveland’: both earlier versions (from 1969 and 1981 – Erato‚ 3/89) had used the BBCSO. We now have that third recording‚ but with the Ensemble InterContemporain expanded to 57 players‚ fitting the composer’s definitive conception of the work as enhanced chamber music. Moreover‚ this is in effect a first recording‚ since it incorporates the revisions which Boulez made to the first and fourth movements during the 1980s.

The recording was made after the series of public performances connected with Boulez’s 75th birthday in 2000‚ and the composer wryly notes in the booklet that it was the result of assiduous preparation‚ with no insecurity or ‘panic’. It is indeed a remarkably polished‚ gravely expressive account‚ as if Boulez now sees his ‘portrait of Mallarmé’ more as a ritual homage to the radical 19th­century poet than as a multivalent‚ urgent‚ even angry sketch of the kind of intransigent creativity that‚ as Boulez saw it‚ all too few of his contemporaries were committing themselves to at the time of the work’s genesis (1957­60). But‚ even without panic‚ there can be no such thing as a sanitised‚ lushly comforting Pli selon Pli. The music remains Boulez’s most extended engagement with the modernist aesthetic‚ especially in the concluding ‘Tombeau’‚ which so determinedly resists that very continuity and coherent cum­ulation to which it seems to aspire.

The recording (made at the Cité de la musique in Paris) is technically immaculate‚ with the intricate tapestry woven around guitar‚ mandolin and harps and the labyrinthine interactions between families of flutes‚ horns and lower strings especially well managed. The microtonal inflections in the vocal line of the fourth movement are supremely difficult to bring off‚ but Christine Schäfer sings serenely and securely‚ with an admirable poetic presence‚ her evening­out of the printed dynamics presumably in line with Boulez’s own current view of the music. Although one can imagine other performances recapturing more of the score’s original fire and fury‚ this is an imposing representation of a work which sums up the composer’s vision of art and life in the years before he found his way to a viable electro­acoustic technique and a more stable view of musical structure.

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