Given Pierre Boulez’ tastes in modernism as a composer, one might have thought that his recordings of the Second Viennese School composers, Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern, would be high points in his catalog. The fact that this should not be the case in both the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) 44-CD box Pierre Boulez • 20th Century and the more modest collection of his complete Erato recordings invites hypothesizing. One possibility that that the producers planning these collections did not share Boulez’ interest in this particular period of music history. Erato restricted him to the content of only two CDs both of Schoenberg’s music, one for the Opus 36 violin concerto and the Opus 42 piano concerto and the other combining the lush “Pelleas und Melisande” tone poem (Opus 5) with the spiky abstractions of the Opus 31 set of variations for orchestra, music so complex that most listeners will have to follow the track numbers to identify when the music progresses from one variation to the next. That is it for Erato: no Berg, no Webern.
DG is far more generous to all three of these composers. For one thing there are two complete opera recordings, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (which he never finished) and the completed three-act version of Berg’s Lulu. There is also a far richer account of “Pelleas und Melisande” using multiple track numbers (which Erato did not do) to help the listener follow the narrative line of the story. In Berg’s case we have his chamber concerto for piano (Daniel Barenboim), violin (Pinchas Zukerman), and thirteen winds (from Ensemble InterContemporain). Nevertheless, there is something almost bloodless about these readings, which is probably to the greatest detriment where Lulu is concerned, as if the nuts and bolts on the score pages were more important than the opera’s dramatic intensity.
It is only when Boulez gets to Webern that the juices really start to flow, and we realize that Frank Zappa was not kidding when he said the only recording he liked to listen to was of Boulez conducting the complete works of Webern. While it may be true that Zappa was just saying this to be obstreperous, it is just as true that the trail that Webern blazed for himself involved some significant shifts from what both Schoenberg and Berg were doing. Virgil Thomson liked to say that, whatever Schoenberg may have done to avoid the sense of a tonal center, his rhythms were always traditional (to which I would add “sometimes too much so”). Webern, on the other hand, felt a need to rethink all the elements of the listening experience, which included not only new thoughts ideas rhythm but also equally innovative approaches to sonority.
Indeed, we see that latter in his earliest post-tonal orchestral writing, when he was calling his pieces nothing more than “pieces.” In conducting this music, Boulez appreciates the full breadth of those listening elements and always seems to find the right way to balance them, usually to create an expressive impact that may not be present in the abstractions of the score notation. At the same time, Webern appreciated that audiences needed to adjust to his new way of thinking about music, which would explain why he chose to orchestrate a Bach fugue in such a way that the subject lines meander through a variety of different instrumental sonorities, sometimes one note at a time. A conductor (like Boulez) who can maintain clarity of line no matter how many times the sonority changes in Bach can do exactly the same thing with one of Webern’s own abstractions, such as the Opus 21 symphony (which has another one of those enigmatic approaches to theme-and-variations).
The DG collection devotes three CDs entirely to Webern. Considering that the DG complete works box (also featuring Boulez) has only six CDs, that is saying a lot. As was the case with the Stravinsky CDs, much of this is chamber music; and it is unclear what role Boulez plays in at least some of those selections. However, there is very much as sense that the Webern portion of the collection embodies an approach to interpretation that is consistently well-informed as to Webern’s approaches to making music and just as consistently reflecting expressiveness that could not be more personal.