Woolly Boulez

It was a confrontation that concertgoers had been eagerly awaiting: Pierre Boulez meets the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for three programs in Carnegie Hall. What, one wondered, would come of it all? On the podium was Boulez, at 75 no longer the combative avant-garde radical of yore but still the music world’s most articulate and committed spokesman for the revolutionary scores of the twentieth century, a composer-conductor who prizes structure, form, and analytical clarity. There to follow his bidding was the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra as noted for its conservative programs, independence, and resistance to change as for its lush sonority and proprietary claim on the old Viennese classics that are part of the musicians’ collective unconscious. Would such opposites attract, learn from each other, and astonish us, or would these two conflicting musical spirits lock horns and fight it out?

If this was indeed a battle, call it a draw. In the first concert, the VPO graciously indulged its guest’s tastes and played a vintage Boulez program: Bartók’s Four Pieces, Op. 12; Webern’s Six Pieces, Op. 6; Debussy’s Jeux; and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements – even the encore traded Johann Strauss’s affable Tritsch-Tratsch Polka for Stravinsky’s acerbic Circus Polka. The results were fascinating, but the only performance that really persuaded me was the Bartók, an early score in which the Vienna players discovered the composer’s luxuriant late-Romantic influences and reveled in them. Elsewhere, I missed the translucence and chiseled instrumental rhetoric that characterize Boulez’s compelling interpretations of Webern, late Debussy, and neoclassical Stravinsky with the virtuoso American and British orchestras that he regularly conducts. Those bands give him exactly what he wants with the easy precision and focused intensity that come less naturally to the Viennese.

For the second concert, conductor and orchestra met on a more even playing field, a program that consisted of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth Symphony. Ever since Boulez surprised everyone by going to Bayreuth in 1966 to conduct Parsifal and, a decade later, the Ring, Wagner has been a spécialité de la maison, one of the few high-Romantic composers to engage this avowed modernist. Since the formal self-sufficiency of Wagnerian music drama has always seemed to interest Boulez more than its pictorial content, it was only a matter of time before he arrived at Bruckner, whose huge symphonies are built on similar structural principles. And Boulez’s objective, measured approach to the Ninth had much in its favor, with diamond-hard instrumental textures and gestural immediacy to complement its architectural majesty – a performance that ideally mated a brainy conductor with an orchestra that can sometimes seem all heart.

What brings Bruckner to life does not necessarily work for Mahler, whose Symphony No. 3 filled the third and final program. I can understand Boulez’s ongoing fascination with such a pivotal composer, but his apparent need to remain aloof from music this aggressively subjective is, in the end, unproductive and self-defeating. It’s especially damaging in a work as descriptively specific and cosmically embracing as the Third, during which conductor and orchestra almost seemed to be functioning in separate halls. The concluding hymnlike slow movement can scarcely fail to bring an audience to its feet, and here the Vienna Philharmonic made the glorious noise one expects it to. But as with what went before, there was no true engagement with the character and personality of the score, and one suspects that the communication problems began at the first rehearsal. Boulez and the VPO – an intriguing experiment, but on this occasion the chemistry was only fitful.

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Three programs conducted by Pierre Boulez.

Woolly Boulez