What has always been most admired in Pierre Boulez's conducting is his ability to clarify. Whether the music at hand happened to be Ives, Haydn, Messiaen or Stravinsky, he seemed to be able to "x-ray" the score, or, as some would have it, to vivisect it. Never had the lines been clearer or the presentation more meticulously organized, but along with these qualities there was often a bloodless, "antiseptic" sort of music-making, too cool by half.
As Boulez's recent recordings of "Daphnis et Chloe" and "The Firebird" indicated, however, and his performances in last fall's New York Philharmonic Mahler Festival gloriously confirmed (the Carnegie Hall presentation of the Third Symphony in particular), he has become more expansive, more warmheated, more irresistibly communicative - and he has brought the Philharmonic to a level of excellence that may well represent its all-time peak.
Boulez's account of Dukas's "La Peri," with the Philharmonic (Columbia M 34201), strikes me as simply the most exciting orchestral recording I have ever heard. It is the sort of thing one keeps going back to again and again, both to verify the astounding impression it made the first time and for the sheer pleasure of it. The music may not be the most "important" piece in the world, but it is no less masterly than the more familiar "Sorcerer's Apprentice," and builds to an intensity no less remarkable than that of the "Liebestod."
Boulez, who of course includes the magnificent preambhlatory Fanfare, does not dawdle, does not merely x-ray, but demonstrates with electrifying impact that "voluptuous," which this music surely is, is not a synonym for "fat," which it assuredly is not. He coaxes his forces into a dizzying involvement and generates a sense of blazing spontaneity that is based on the surest footing, with playing that is flawless, polished and elegant as well as gorgeous and sweeping. It is a 200 per cent commitment that goes all the way and then some with Dukas - who, one acknowledges anew, was one hell of a writer for the orchestra.
On the other side of the disc is a similarly impactive presentation of Roussel's splendidly athletic Symphony No. 3 in G minor, surely that neglected master's finest work for orchestra. It was Rousel's misfortune to be a late bloomer who worked in Ravel's shadow: it is our misfortune that such works as this appear so infrequently on our concert programs. Perhaps Boulez's stunning realization of the Symphony - even more alive with joy than the fine one by Charles Munch, paired with the Roussel Fourth on MHS-1879 - will help to correct that situation: it is, in any event, too great to think of doing without:
Another contemporary of Ravel was Louis Vierne, the famous organist of Notre Dame and composer of six symphonies for his instrument without orchestra. (Ravel, Roussel and Vierne, born between 1869 and 1875, all died in 1937). On one of the Inedits records produced by the French Radio (ORTF) we are offered an opportunity to acquaint ourselves - for the first time, it appears - with music of Vierne which does not involve the organ: his Symphony in A minor (Op. 24) and four of the 10 songs from his cycle "Spleens et detresses." George Tzipine conducts the ORTF's Orchestre Philharmonique, with soprano Yva Bartelemy in the songs (Inedits 995.002).
The songs are settings of Verlaine texts, and the score of the Symphony, too, cites lines of that poet as headings. That of the slow movement happens to be the same as the text of one of the songs, "Un grand sommeil noir." All of this music is dark and driving, interesting and occassionally fascinating for its rhythmic design and the colors produced from a deliberately limited palette, but with little melodic interest. The performances are strong from Tzipine and the orchestra, a little thinner than ideal from Barthelemy. The sound is reasonably good, but rather boxy, and no texts are provided in either French or English. Not the most ingratiating release of the year, but well worth the attention of explorers.