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Composer-Conductor Pierre Boulez At 85

For more than 50 years Pierre Boulez has been at the forefront of classical music as a composer, conductor and radical thinker. He turned 85 years old in March and shows little sign of slowing down, with a continuing flow of CDs and DVDs to his credit.

One of the newest, a CD of music by Igor Stravinsky is one of Boulez's best. It contains Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements a piece he composed for the New York Philharmonic during World War II. He referred to it as his "War Symphony," and its pounding, incisive rhythms echo his notorious pre-World War I ballet, The Rite of Spring.

The live performance is with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, released on CSO Resound, the orchestra's own label. The disc also includes Stravinsky's complete Pulcinella, not just the abbreviated Suite, which leaves out the charming, sexy songs. Stravinsky composed this scintillating commedia dell'arte ballet for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

Stravinsky himself regarded Pulcinella as his first neo-classical work, both his discovery of the past, and his transformation of it. He boldly borrowed themes he thought were all by the 18th-century Italian composer Pergolesi, though it turned out some of them were actually by a number of other minor composers. But even though the tunes themselves aren't by Stravinsky, his syncopated rhythms and dazzling, even hilarious combinations of instruments make Pulcinella one of his most original, most modern, most 'Stravinskyan' scores. And in the hands of Boulez and the Chicago Symphony, one of his most sparkling.

On a new DVD, Inheriting the Future of Music, you can watch Boulez working on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring with young conductors and players at the Lucerne Festival Academy in Switzerland. They adore him because he doesn't condescend to them. And not a note escapes his attention.

But the new Boulez recording I'm most excited about is a live performance from 1996 of music he isn't generally associated with, and if you didn't know it was Boulez, you might guess the conductor was a Viennese native. It's Joseph Haydn's last symphony, No. 104, and the orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic.


Boulez is famous for his amazing ear. He lets you hear every detail. But there are two other Boulez qualities he isn't often given credit for. One is his innate and effortless sense of the right style. In Boulez's hands, Haydn's symphony -- for a change -- actually sounds Viennese. The other is size. Too many Haydn performances seem small-scale, miniature and tinkly. But Boulez really conveys the grandeur as well as the delicacy of Haydn's magnificent conception.

At 85, and not for the first time, Boulez has announced that he would be cutting back on conducting to devote more time to composing. Of course, we want to hear more of his own works. But since he's the most insightful and incisive conductor now alive, how can our reaction to this decision not be bitter-sweet?

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Lloyd Schwartz
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.