The album, as you may already have guessed, is the new Deutsche Gramm recording of Pierre Boulez's Le Marteau sans maître (with Derive 1 and Derive 2).
Maybe it is a sign of a shared cultural heritage (or careful cribbing from the liner notes) that both reviews quote Stravinsky, who said the the piece was "the only truly significant work of the new age." The piece, whose title translates as "The Hammer Unmastered," consists of three interlocking cycles based on three poems by René Char: the titles of the sections and of the whole piece come from Char's work. I admit that it is difficult to hear the lyrics (of course, my French leaves much to be desired), but the liner notes for the album include the text and translations.
The Wire review (written by Philip Clark) opens:
Pierre Boulez's jowly face breaks into a broad grin on the cover of this new recording of his Le Marteau sans maître--his record company would like you to think Boulez, now in his 80th year, is cuddly. OK, his demeanour is more sober on the Piano Sonatas disc, but Deutsche Grammophon are doing the best to sweeten what for many listeners remains a bitter pill.
It is true that Boulez is the big maestro on campus these days, and the DG recording of him conducting the Bartók Piano Concertos is mighty fine. But it is a far cry from Boulez's own compositions, which, though they might merit a place in the Difficult Listening Hour, are fascinating and repay keen listening.
In Gramophone, Arnold Whittall notes that by his count this is Boulez's fifth recording of the piece, but I admit is the first I've heard. Philip Clark says that in some earlier recordings, the opening has "had a big girl's blouse quality," while this time it is "clangorous and faintly demented." This is a good thing.
About the mezzo-soprano part, performed by Hilary Summers, and seizing on my favorite aspect of this piece, Philip Clark says,
Boulez confuses the point where text ends and music begins. The voice is heard in its familiar guise as a solo line, but then gets buried deep within the ensemble as the instruments assume a vocal quality.
Maybe this is the perfect examination of the relationship between poetry and free verse. The meaning from the poetry comes as much from the music as the language, but you cannot predict the relationship.
About the instrumentation, Arnold Whittall says,
Flute, guitar and viola are never overshadowed by the more resonant sounds of the percussion duo, and there’s the kind of edge-of-the seat interplay which can only be achieved by players who have the music in their bones as well as under their fingers. As for the final duet for flute and metal percussion, this stands out for its incantatory gravitas, and for the hint of un-Gallic pathos that underpins its eloquence. It might not please the great composer/conductor to realize it, but Le Marteau has become a modern classic.
I close with my own cribbing from the liner notes, with another comment from Stravinsky—one that better speaks to my experience with the piece. He said,
I will not explain my admiration for it but merely offer a variation of Gertrude Stein's answer to the question of why she liked Picasso's pictures—"I like looking at them"—and say "I like listening to Boulez."
Listen to it several times, and several ways—listen straight through, with the text in front of you, along the paths that let you explore the interlocking cycles.
p.s. If you do not subscribe to The Wire, then you have not received in your mailbox their latest sampler, Marke B 05. Centering on May's Marke B festival, which showcases "Berlin's network of electronic music labels," the disc has tracks from Non Standard Institut, ISAN, Duran Duran Duran (track? "I hate the 80s," with fab destruction of a Yaz sample), Dominique, Barbara Morgenstern, and my favorite, Frivolous, whose name I might have to steal. If I were as fancy as The Cod, I'd give you MP3s, but then I'd probably get hauled off by the FBI, and what fun is that?