Monday, 28 March 2011

Boulez conducts Debussy

How he has mellowed...

8 comments:

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Mark,

His generally brisk tempos with Debussy (from recordings) is what infuriates me the most...

Henry Holland said...

Better brisk tempos than the plodding washes of sound that some conductors traffic in when it comes to Debussy's orchestral music.

Great sunglasses on Mr. Boulez as well. Compared to the clip below rehearsing Mahler, it seems his gestures have become sparser and less like karate over the years.

Mark Berry said...

Henry, I agree, though I think it is less the tempo than the clarity that is so astonishing. (I recall hearing him play this same piece as an encore with the Vienna Philharmonic: utterly beguiling and one could hear the notes, rather than a mere wash of sound.)

The shades are rather special, aren't they?

Raining Acorns said...

Now, this is quite a find. I don't think I've ever heard Debussy sound like this. Must be the sunglasses.

Henry Holland said...

Henry, I agree, though I think it is less the tempo than the clarity that is so astonishing

Yes, the clarity. That's why I love his conducting of pieces as disparate as Birtwistle's Earth Dances and Szymanowski's 3rd Symphony, the whole tapestry of sound is clear, not just a muddle.

BTW, I went to the Walt Disney Hall tonight for a tribute to the Philharmonic's late director, Ernest Fleischman. The program:

Boulez: Sur incises
Salonen: Dona nobis pacem
Donatoni: Arpege
Stravinsky: Renard

Mr. Boulez conducted his own piece, it was ravishing, a great performance. The Salonen is a short piece for children's choir, very nice, while I thought the Donatoni (one of Salonen's composition teachers) was very dated plink-plonk music. And oh god the Stravinsky, like fingernails on a chalkboard. Oh well, it was well worth it for the Boulez piece.

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Henry,

"Better brisk tempos than the plodding washes of sound that some conductors traffic in when it comes to Debussy's orchestral music"

No, you don't understand.

It has nothing to do with "plodding washes of sound" ... Not that there is anything wrong with that on occasion.

There is so much to savor in Debussy. And his music grows enormously in power with slow tempos.

For example, the recording of Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun by Boulez clocks in at just under 9 minutes or so. That is ridiculously fast! And his phrasing is generally terrible.

Now compare this with Sergiu Celibidache and his 1994 DVD recording of Faun with the Munich Philharmonic. The instrumentalists are allowed to really luxuriate in it and it lasts over 16 minutes! That is how this masterpiece must be approached -- flowing heavily and languidly.

Just listen to him and then tell me which man really loves and understands Debussy's most famous piece.

(Regrettably, Celibidache never approached Pelleas et Melisande.)

The Unrepentant Pelleastrian said...

Mark,

"and one could hear the notes, rather than a mere wash of sound"

Again, what does this mean exactly?

"it is less the tempo than the clarity that is so astonishing"

Right.

.... And a dry, mostly brisk, nothing but the notes approach.

Like I said, this is absolutely antithetical to the spirit of Debussy as far as I'm concerned. Try the Celibidache and see.

Mark Berry said...

Well, we are clearly hearing very different things. For me, it is certainly not a 'nothing but the notes approach'. There are great warmth and above all direction here. There are occasions in Debussy's music where his all-too-celebrated 'vagueness' is just what is required, though hardly the only thing, but even then it is made up of notes. The 'Impressionist' tag has done him no good whatsoever, and was not something to which he subscribed. (It does Monet little good either, for that matter.) Just as, say, in the great upward sweeps of Strauss's 'Don Juan', there are passages in which it is unnecessary, perhaps even counter-productive, to hear all of the notes distinctly, but I think they are relatively few and far between. I cannot think of any offhand in either 'Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune' or 'Pelléas and Mélisande'. The former is, after all, perhaps the most utterly convincing candidate for the first piece of twentieth-century music: one hears so much there of what is to come, that, if one simply treats it like a warm bath, it is a one-sided interpretation indeed. Sometimes one might even want that, but hardly all of the time.

Celibidache is a strange conductor indeed. At least later on, his understanding seems entirely lacking in any forward motion whatsoever: stasis is all. That seems to have something to do with his interest in Buddhism; or is it the other way round? I am not sure that he is a very good model for anyone else (or even himself?!); to imitate him would most likely end in disaster. His lack of a dramatic sense - at least in the way generally understood - surely helps explain his avoidance of opera - that and, of course, a refusal to compromise that makes Boulez resemble a woolly-minded liberal...

Timings tell a small part of the tempo story, if anything. A piece can sound interminable, and often does, when taken very quickly, and the converse is equally true. Outstaying one's welcome, though, is never to be recommended. Boulez has studied and spoken of his admiration for Wagner's writings on the subject and is far from always on the fast side.