The years have seen Pierre Boulez record for CBS, Erato, EMI, and Philips, among other labels, but his most consistent and critically praised work has appeared on Deutsche Grammophon, where he has conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and his own Ensemble InterContemporain in many successful performances. These ensembles are heard on this trimline, six-CD box set of Igor Stravinsky's major works, which brings together Boulez's recordings of L'oiseau de feu, Petrushka, Le Sacre du printemps, L'histoire du Soldat, the symphonies, concertos, and other works, recorded between 1980 and 1996. As one of the leading champions of modernism, first as a composer and essayist, then as a prominent conductor, Boulez is regarded as an authority on Stravinsky's oeuvre, and it is difficult to imagine many conductors who have a better understanding of the technical and stylistic issues that affect performances. Boulez is also famous for his precision and meticulousness, which make the details stand out clearly in the rhythmically complex and texturally dense orchestral scores of the ballets, and yet seem so delicate and exact in the concertos and pieces for smaller ensembles.
This is the best Boulez recording in quite a while. He offers the canonic 12 Wunderhorn songs, meaning no Urlicht and no Das himmlische Leben in the original orchestration before it became the finale of the Fourth Symphony. You won't miss them. None of the songs are done as duets, and you won't be bothered by that either. The singing is exceptional: Magdalena Kozená combines a sweet timbre with plenty of personality and attention to the words; Christian Gerhaher's light, somewhat grainy baritone may not be to all tastes, but his unfailing musicality and his gusto (singing but never shouting) in the big "military" songs carries the day.
It is almost exactly a quarter of a century since Pierre Boulez recorded his complete Webern survey. This new collection, apart from being useful for anyone who doesn't want to buy three whole CDs of Webern, offers an interesting insight into how Boulez's way with a composer probably more central to him than any other has changed. For a start he gives him a little more time: most of the pieces here are slightly but significantly slower than they were in 1970. This allows lines to be more subtly moulded, phrases to acquire a touch more poise. This is not to say that Boulez has softened and now phrases Webern as though he were Chopin, but grace and even wit (the second movement of the Quartet) are now noticeable alongside his customary precision. The Ensemble InterContemporain have been playing these pieces constantly since they were first founded, and it shows in the absolute assurance of their performances.
…Whatever reservations one might harbor about this or that individual performance, it is unlikely that this set as a whole will be surpassed in the near future. It belongs in every serious music library, private or public.