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by Seth Colter Walls

September 17, 2013

Classical Remix: Pierre Boulez

by Seth Colter Walls  |  September 17, 2013

Welcome to Rhapsody's Classical Remix Portal, which you can follow here. In every playlist, we present classical works in their original forms. Then, after each one is over, we give you an upstart musician's rethink.

As a conductor, Pierre Boulez is famed for clarity and accuracy. As a composer, he's never finished with a work, a reality that leads to revisions upon revisions of pieces that might have been "published" decades ago. The man is his own most fervent remixer! Keeping the versions of each creation straight can become somewhat difficult.

That's why the Classical Remix desk is here. We've grouped several of Boulez's most notorious self-revision jobs back-to-back, the better to help you get a handle on these complex modern works. It's exciting to hear, for example, how the maestro has revised some of the miniature "Notations" (for solo piano) by turning them into thumping, grand-orchestra items. (We've put the four widely available orchestral versions next to their corresponding piano versions, in the order the orchestra pieces are performed.)

Simply checking out Pierre Laurent-Aimard's version of Notation No. 4 for piano, and then the Wiener Philharmoniker's version of the "Rhythmique" stylized for symphonic blast, does a lot to undermine the critique of Boulez's music as so coldly avant-garde that it's unmemorable. The slashing drive of Boulez can make quite an impression. And his quiet moments have an enveloping mystery, too. There's atonality of course, but also a hint of French impressionism in the gliding dynamics of a piece like "Incises" for piano.

In an odd twist of circumstance, the fact that Boulez seems to obsessively rework his compositions can help us perceive these qualities, with each new version giving us another opportunity to hear what's happening in the composer's head. Most intriguing among the revised works is the duo of Anthemes 1, for solo violin, and Anthemes 2, for solo violin and live electronic processing. (Yes, Boulez pioneered live electronic processing in classical music decades ago. Chalk it up to being a visionary.)

The two versions of this piece are never grouped together on single albums, for whatever obscure reason, so turn to our playlist for a performance of the original (Track 9), and then the electronically tricked-out edition (Tracks 10-18). From the latter version, the movement titled "VI-1 Allant" is particularly cool. See the rest of our mix for more striking redrafts, including two very different versions of Derive 2, at the end of the playlist. And because movement-titling on classical releases is sometimes a bit incomplete, you can consult the tracklist below to know which version of which composition you're listening to.

Tracks 1-8: Four "Notations" (alternating versions for solo piano and orchestra)
Track 9: Anthemes 1 (for solo violin)
Tracks 10-18: Anthemes 2 (for violin and live electronics)
Track 19: Incises (for solo piano, 2001 revision)
Tracks 20-21: Sur Incises (for 3 pianos, 3 harps, 3 percussionists, 1998 version)
Track 22: Dérive 2 (2002 version)
Track 23: Dérive 2 (2006 version)

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