A Modern Masterpiece

A Music Review by Gregory Elich

February 17, 2003


Boulez. Pli Selon Pli. Christine Schafer, soprano; Ensemble Intercontemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez. CD, Deutsche Grammophon 289 471 344-2. This album was nominated for the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Classical

This is the latest of three recordings of Pierre Boulez conducting his own music in Deutsche Grammophon's 20/21 series, devoted to contemporary classical music. Pli Selon Pli, subtitled "a portrait of Mallarmé," is intended as an homage to the allusive and at times enigmatic poetry of 19th-century French Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé. The title reflects the long and gradual process that formed the piece. According to the composer, the work's title was taken "from the sonnet Remémoration d'amis belges, which describes the brightening mist that gradually, "fold by fold" ("pli selon pli") like a curtain opening, reveals the stone (in this case, the buildings of Bruges). So it was with the creation of this work: it came about little by little, and in the beginning I had no idea as to what sort of piece it would become." Initially, in 1957 Boulez wrote two "improvisations" based on the poetry of Mallarmé and two years later added a third. The composer soon started work on expanding the piece and in 1960 completed a movement entitled "Don" ("gift") which he placed as the opening movement, and two years later a final movement, "Tombeau" ("tomb") was completed. Over the years Boulez continued to tinker with the work, which did not achieve its final form until 1989. Although recorded twice before, this is the first recording of the final version. Pli Selon Pli marked a turning point in the composer's musical development and contributed to the growing recognition that Boulez was perhaps the most important composer of his time. This perception has only grown in recent years as so many other composers have retreated down the anodyne pathways of minimalism, dry academicism and neo-romanticism.

The opening movement, "Don," is mainly instrumental. During its 15 minutes, only one full line is given to the soprano, followed by isolated words taken from subsequent movements. The work begins with a loud unison opening, followed by the soprano singing the first lines of the text. Soon the music is filled with pointillist filigree, pregnant with a feeling of expectation. This leads to a section of shimmering icy beauty, employing a large percussion section, including two vibraphones, glockenspiel and bells. The text is both sung and whispered by the soprano, and the music soon grows more urgent, with slashing figures played by the strings and woodwinds. This opening movement employs the full ensemble.

The middle three movements are more chamber-like in size and sonority, with the melismatic vocal line, beautifully sung by Christine Schafer, at the forefront. Despite the length of these movements, the concision of the music ensures that no note is wasted, with the notes frequently sounding like chiselled gleaming jewels. The central movement employs two contrasting vocal styles. According to the composer, the first style, ornamental, results "in a certain unintelligibility but this is deliberate." Sound is paramount during these sections. The second vocal style, "syllabic declamation," emphasizes the text. The penultimate movement, sounding more urgent than the preceding two movements, was considerably revised in the final version, eliminating elements of variability that were important aspects of the original version. The impetus for the revision was the composer's feeling that variable musical forms when performed by large forces precluded the subtlety he was attempting to achieve in this work.

Although containing only one line of text, the final movement, "Tombeau" ("tomb") holds an inordinate weight in meaning for the work as a whole. The movement begins with an expectant and gorgeous hush. The music grows in intensity leading to an extended section of jabbing brass, scurrying woodwinds and shimmering percussion, in which instrumental groups alternate and vie with each other. The soprano enters only as the movement draws to a close, the vocal line broken up and ornamented to the point of unintelligibility against an eerie instrumental backdrop. Only the last word is discernible, "mort" ("death"), which the soprano whispers. This is followed by a resounding crash sounded by the full orchestra, bringing the work to an abrupt and stunning close.

The recording of this CD followed a series of live performances given to mark the composer's 75th birthday in 2000. The Ensemble Intercontemporain, founded by the composer himself as an orchestra specializing in the performance of new music, give polished performances of crystalline beauty, and Christine Schafer sings the difficult vocal line with impressive ease. Pli Selon Pli is one of the major achievements in contemporary classical music. This CD release of the music of Pierre Boulez joins its two predecessors in the important 20/21 recording series and is essential listening for those with an interest in new music.

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Sound Samples

Don »   Windows Media  -  Real Audio

Improvisation sur Mallarme I »   Windows Media  -  Real Audio

Improvisation sur Mallarme II »   Windows Media  -  Real Audio

Improvisation sur Mallarme III »   Windows Media  -  Real Audio

Tombeau »   Windows Media  -  Real Audio


Gregory Elich is a consultant in technology, an independent researcher, a journalist, and an activist.

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Published February 17, 2003
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