As far as can be determined by perusing the international catalogs, this 2008 Decca disc contains post-modernist composer/conductor Pierre Boulez's first recording of a work by high classical composer/performer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Boulez's choice of repertoire is unusual to say the least: neither a symphony nor a piano concerto, but rather a serenade, to be specific, the Gran Partita for 13 wind instruments. One could understand a symphony, possibly the contrapuntal 41st, or a piano concerto, perhaps the driving 20th, but a serenade, a piece of light music designed for entertainment? Could anything seem further from Boulez's post-modernist aesthetic?
The program makes more sense in context of the coupling: Berg's Chamber Concerto. Both works are by Viennese composers -- Berg was born and died there, Mozart moved there and died -- and both call for the unusual ensemble of 13 wind instruments. But the distance between the two pieces is still vast. To start with, the forms are entirely different: Mozart's work is full of solos drawn from within the ensemble, while Berg's is a true concerto with a pianist and violin soloists taking the lead. More fundamentally, Mozart's is an enormously delightful and occasionally affecting tonal work while Berg's is immensely challenging and only occasionally overtly appealing serial work.
Inevitably, then, one is more curious about Boulez's Mozart than his Berg and more confident about his Berg than his Mozart, and, unsurprisingly, Boulez's approach is arguably more successful in the Berg than in the Mozart. Leading his superbly trained Ensemble InterContemporain, Boulez's Gran Partita is cool, clear, analytical, and, as often as not, a bit on the quick side. Thanks to Boulez's superlative ears and crisp technique, everything is absolutely audible and, thanks to the Paris-based chamber orchestra's first-class playing, everything is ideally executed. Listeners looking for elegance and warmth might want to look elsewhere, but listeners who value clarity and lucidity above all may find Boulez's Gran Partita reading rewarding.
As expected, Boulez's Berg is much more successful, partially due to his excellent choices in soloists, pianist Mitsuko Uchida and violinist Christian Tetzlaff, and partially due to Boulez's unsurpassed understanding of Berg's musical language. As with his Mozart, everything is absolutely audible and ideally executed, but unlike his Mozart, Boulez and his players sound much more committed to the music and Berg's concerto comes off as much more touching than his Mozart Serenade. Beautifully recorded by Decca, this disc may please some of the people some of the time and displease the rest of the people the rest of the time, but it seems unlikely to please all of the people all of the time. (James Leonard)