Among the composers covered by my survey of the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) 44-CD box Pierre Boulez • 20th Century and The Complete Erato Recordings, three remain that made significant contributions to the first half of the twentieth century. These are Olivier Messiaen, Edgard Varèse, and Karol Szymanowski. (Note the absence of Americans from this period of music history, particularly those influenced by Nadia Boulanger. Boulez was never shy about admitting that he had very strong biases.)
It may seem more than a little illogical to try to gather these three composers in a group. On the other hand, none of them fall particularly convincingly into any of the other groups that historians and musicologists have tried to compile for the sake of classification. One might say that they represent the “category of the unclassifiable,” which may amount to acknowledging that each had a uniquely characteristic way of establishing his compositional voice.
Messiaen received the most attention on these recordings, but it is relatively modest. There is a single CD in the Erato set that couples the five-movement “Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum” (the text from the Credo portion of the Mass about belief in the raising of the dead) with “Couleurs de la Cité Céleste” (colors of the celestial city). The members of Les Percussions de Strasbourg perform with the winds and brass of the Orchestre du Domaine musical; and Yvonne Loriod (Messiaen’s second wife) is piano soloist in “Couleurs.” The DG collection has two CDs, both with the Cleveland Orchestra. These include another performance of “Et exspecto,” along with a broader collection of Messiaen’s nature-inspired compositions, including his massive “Chronochromie.” However, it also includes the much earlier (1937) song cycle Poèmes pour Mi, written for his first wife, Claire Delbos, affectionately called “Mi” by her husband. The vocalist is soprano Françoise Pollet.
The best way to approach Messiaen is to accept the premise that his is a rhetoric of ecstatic abandon. This is most evident in those compositions that draw upon Catholicism, not only from Scripture and liturgical texts but also from the mystics. However, just as Francis of Assisi (about whom Messiaen composed a mammoth opera) saw God in all the manifestations of nature, so too does Messiaen’s ecstasy also embrace natural phenomena, such as mountain ranges, waterfalls, and, above all, no end of avian wildlife. However, ecstasy tends to presume spontaneity of behavior. As a result, many of his compositions often sound as if they were improvised, sometimes lurching from one motif to another, while at other times persisting in working over a single motif as if in search of a trance-like state.
This then raises the question of how a conductor as intensely disciplined as Boulez can deal with such appearances (if not actual manifestations) of spontaneity. The best answer appears to be that Boulez applies his discipline to the faithful realization of every mark Messiaen has committed to his score pages. In other words he assumes that the specifications are thorough enough that, if they are rendered as precisely as possible, the music will speak for itself. One result is what may be the most coherent account of “Chronochromie” to appear as a recording,
On the other hand there remains the risk of “bloodless” readings, to recall the adjective I invoked in writing about Boulez’ approach to the music of Alban Berg. This is most evident in comparing the two performances of “Et exspecto.” The Cleveland recording was made in 1993, while the Domaine musicale performance dates from 1966. Back in the early years of his career as a conductor, Boulez was not shy about seeking out and incorporating the visceral side of Messiaen’s ecstasy, The result is that the low brass lines roar, while the gongs are clearly summoning the dead to rise in preparation for the Last Judgment. This reading seems far more faithful to Messiaen’s intentions than do the “atheist abstractions” from Cleveland.
In contrast Boulez’ approaches to Varèse, all on a single DG CD of recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made in 1995, have been far more successful at finding a “sweet spot” where abstraction, fidelity to notation, and visceral rhetoric all converge. The CD features two major early works for large orchestra, “Amériques” (composed between 1918 and 1921 and revised in 1927) and “Arcana” (composed between 1925 and 1927). Both of these pieces positively revel in their dissonances, which are spread out over the wide sonorous diversities of a full ensemble. The CD then continues with “Déserts,” which combines winds and percussion with electronic tape (and is also the topic of a delightful essay collected in Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare). Then having all but exhausted the listener’s capacity for sonorous variety, the CD concludes with Varèse’s pioneering all-percussion composition “Ionisation” (composed between 1929 and 1931), which, in all likelihood, provided the inspiration for John Cage to start writing percussion music.
This then raises the question of whether Szymanowski deserves to be juxtaposed alongside the likes of Messiaen and Varèse. His personal aesthetic is probably closer to that of Claude Debussy; and, as I have previously written, this is evident in his chamber music for both piano and violin. On the other hand there is a darkness to his third symphony, which is scored for tenor solo (Steve Davislim), full chorus (the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien), and orchestra (the Wiener Philhamoniker) that combines the rhetoric of Gustav Mahler and the instrumental diversity of Debussy with some of the earlier experiments in instrumental coloration encountered in Messiaen. (For the record, Szymanowski died in the year that Messiaen composed Poèmes pour Mi. There does not appear to be any evidence that Messiaen knew of Szymanowski’s work, but those who purchase the DG collection will probably enjoy the opportunity to listen to both of these pieces within a single span of time.)
Regardless of whether or not it makes sense to approach the death of Szymanowski as a transition into the rise of Messiaen, those already interested in Szymanowski’s chamber music for violin will probably appreciate the opportunity to listen to his first (Opus 35) violin concerto. At the end of last week, I wrote about how much of that chamber music was actually a collaborative effort with the violinist Paul Kochanski. It is thus worth noting that in the Opus 35 concerto, violinist Christian Tetzlaff performs a cadenza composed by Kochanski. This music may be far more “conventional” than the offerings by Messiaen and Varèse; and there may be a generous supply of favorable glances towards both Debussy and Igor Stravinsky. However, the combined resources of Tetzlaff, Boulez, and the Wiener Philhamoniker make for a listening experience as compelling as those of the Debussy and Ravel selections in this DG collection.