It may seem peculiar to some listeners to find Pierre Boulez at the helm for this CSO Resound recording of Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, the Four Études, and Pulcinella, because it was the polystylism that these works represent which the conductor once vociferously railed against. But that was Boulez in his younger days, when he was still a fiery polemicist and a purist of the avant-garde, with an axe to grind against any who would not yield to the serial juggernaut, including the chameleon-like Stravinsky, who employed stylistic diversity as a major aspect of his art and resisted twelve-tone experimentation until his later years. Decades later, it seems Boulez has mellowed, for it is a fairly sympathetic interpreter who leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in these works, and it appears that the neo-Classicism of the symphony, the Rococo pastiches of Pulcinella, and the pseudo-primitivism of the Four Études no longer seem to cause him any aesthetic discomfort. It is even possible that Boulez has found this music more appealing over time, if only for the reason that both he and Stravinsky have famously shared a resistance to emotion and favored a clinical musical sensibility. No one would consider these pieces deep expressions, and while the performances here are muscular, sharp, crisp, and clean, they are utterly devoid of sentimentality. Even Pulcinella, which has potential for some sweetness and pathos, is delivered with a straight face, and the close attention to every detail shows that Boulez views it less as a charming neo-Classical ballet and more as a study of Stravinsky's idiosyncratic methods of fragmentation and recomposition. Of the three performances, Pulcinella comes across with the fullest ensemble sound and the clearest reproduction, but it is not as vivacious as it should be. The symphony has great energy and pugnacity going for it, but its sound is a little muddy and opaque. The Four Études offer the best balance between a lively performance and terrific reproduction, and in some ways this overlooked classic is the most compelling on the album, inviting repeated listening.
Stravinsky: Pulcinella; Symphony in Three Movements; Four Études Review
by Blair Sanderson