Last week, when my series of articles about Pierre Boulez as a conductor had come to the topic of Boulez conducting his own music, I augmented my discussion of the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) 44-CD box Pierre Boulez • 20th Century and the 14-CD collection of his complete Erato recordings with some of his earliest recordings, now available in the limited-edition 10-CD collection compiled by Universal Music Classics covering Boulez’ Domaine musical performances between 1956 and 1967. The Domaine musical was a concert society based in Paris that Boulez founded in 1954, which continued into 1973. While it was clearly conceived to provide Boulez with a concert platform for his own work, he was happy to share that platform; and the Domaine musical Wikipedia page lists Karlheinz Stockhausen, Olivier Messiaen, Luciano Berio, John Cage, Sylvano Bussotti, Mauricio Kagel, Hans Werner Henze, Henri Pousseur, Ernst Krenek, Gilbert Amy, Peter Schat and Gilles Tremblay as composers whose works were performed at Domaine musical concerts.
The recent Universal Music Classics box does not cover the full duration of Domaine musical concerts. However, it confines itself to an early decade that was particularly active. While the full extent of the recorded legacy of Domaine musical may be unclear, the Universal Music Classics collection is definitely a significant one. It begins, curiously enough, around the end of its scope with the tenth anniversary concert, which featured works by Stockhausen (“Kontra-Punkte”), Berio (the first serenata for flute and fourteen instruments), Boulez (Le Marteau sans maître), and Messiaen (“Oiseaux exotiques”). At the other end of the box, so to speak, is a recording of the third concert from the 1956 season, which also includes “Oiseaux exotiques,” along with Henze’s 1956 piano concerto and “Équivalences,” written in 1963 for eighteen instruments by Jean-Claude Éloy. The recording begins with Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments,” preceded by two of the canzonas from Giovanni Gabrielli’s Sacrae Symphoniae. “Oiseaux exotiques” is one of two compositions to appear twice in this collection. The other is Le Marteau sans maître, whose very first recording (in 1956) is included following Boulez’ interview with Claude Samuel on the final disc.
Of the remaining discs, three are devoted to the Second Viennese School. The division is not quite chronological. The first covers the early years between 1899 and 1912. The second deals with the emergence of atonality but covers the period between 1906 and 1943. The third is entitled Serialism; but it consists of strictly twelve-tone compositions, two by Arnold Schoenberg and two by Anton Webern. There are also single discs for Stravinsky and Boulez, as well as a “French” disc of Claude Debussy, Edgard Varèse, and Messiaen, and a “fellow travelers” disc of Kagel, Luigi Nono, Henze, Pousseur, and Stockhausen.
This is clearly a lot to absorb. However, listening to the entire collection is definitely a trip worth taking. One of the great misfortunes of the twentieth century is that much of this music did not fare particularly well at the hands of American interpreters, particularly those performers that were pressured by Columbia producers telling them what to do. (Such performers have my sympathy, particularly after I learned how badly Columbia had treated Thelonious Monk, as documented in Robin D. G. Kelley’s biography.) Where most of those American recordings were dry as dust (at best), the Domaine musical recordings are downright gutsy and (since Monk is now part of the party) sometimes compellingly jazzy, albeit in their own way.
The fact is that, in the hands of the right performers, La Marteau sans maître can swing with the same impact as many of the tracks from John Coltrane or Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The “accent” may be a bit different; but the spirit of music making is cut from the same cloth. Similarly, as I have already observed, the Kontarsky brothers, pianists Alfons and Aloys, can turn even the most abstract of Boulez’ scores into a swinging jam session.
For the better part of the second half of the twentieth century, American listeners (quite possibly as unwilling victims of decisions made by American record producers) tended to approach European modernism with an unhealthy mix of fear and loathing. This music almost was almost never broadcast on the radio; and, when it was performed in concert, it was presented as vegetables that had to be finished before moving on to the joyous foot-stomping of Aaron Copland for dessert. These recordings from Domain musicale concerts make it clear than such conceptions about modern music “ain’t necessarily so.” Through this collection we can finally learn that Boulez’ contributions as a concert organizer and promoter were a significant as those directed towards both composing and conducting.