Glorious Performances of Modern Masterpieces
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 08/11/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony gave this concert at the 2000 MusikTriennale at the Cologne Philharmonie; it was part of that year's theme, 'Sounds of the Century', during the century's final year. The three selections in this program were from the first third of the 20th century with four Debussy songs (with the exquisite singing of German soprano Christine Schäfer [who looked lovely, too, and was obviously well into a pregnancy]), Berg's 'Lulu' Suite (which also featured Schäfer singing the horrendously difficult title part), and the complete 'Firebird' ballet (not just one of the suites Stravinsky fashioned from it).
The 'Lulu' suite is actually more orchestral than vocal, almost like a tone poem with vocal interludes. The Chicago musicians play as to the manner born and Boulez clearly loves this work -- he conducted the whole opera in a celebrated recording some years back -- bringing forth a clean and unusually lean performance of this work that can often sound obfuscated by less precise orchestral balances. Schäfer sings lyrically, sculpting the text dramatically with exceptional diction. She has a lyrical sound that darkens appropriately in the more harrowing moments. Her physical beauty makes it easy to believe her portrayal of opera's most scandalous femme fatale.
Debussy is represented by one of the Baudelaire songs, 'Le Jet d'eau', and the Three Ballades of Francois Villon. Again, orchestral playing is impeccable -- what does one expect, I guess, from the Chicago, right? -- and it sounds like a different group, largely because of their ability to move into a more French sound than in the Berg. Schäfer is moving both musically and dramatically, and again she has impeccable diction. (The texts of this and the Berg are provided via subtitles in English, German or French as one chooses.)
The highlight for me, though, is the complete performance of the Firebird Ballet largely because I am such a fan of the Chicago Symphony and here they are front and center. Since this was performed in 2000 we get to hear the legendary first trumpet, Adolph Herseth, in one of his later performances. Other fine soloists include Sam Magad, concertmaster; John Bruce Yeh, E-flat clarinet (in the fiercely difficult solo in the 'Dance of the Firebird'); Mathieu Dufour, the principal flutist in his first year with the orchestra (I'll put him up against anyone in the world these days, including Emmanuel Pahud of the Berliner Philharmoniker); the indefatigable, musical and clam-free first horn, Dale Clevenger; and the orchestra's superb principal clarinet, Larry Combs. But the music is the thing, and Boulez gets a marvelously inflected performance of Stravinsky's first great masterpiece. An exciting performance.
I seem to recall that this performance has previously been available on another label, but I've not seen that version. The video is superb, both in its crystal clear focus and in the ability of the director, Janós Darvas, to aim the camera precisely where one wants to be looking. There are the usual 'conductor shots' but we spend a great deal of the time seeing the music actually being made by the instrumentalists. Bravo for that.
This is a winner.