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Boulez to the Rescue
By Hugues Mousseau

BERLIN - In the opinion of some orchestra musicians, the Berlin Philharmonic has been slipping. Since 1993 Pierre Boulez has been a regular guest conductor along with Bernard Haitink and Sir Georg Solti. The decision to work steadily under Boulez - whose terse yet efficient methods are universally admired - has been largely motivated by the desire to steady the orchestra on its feet. In fact, consumate musicianship and technical skills as an orchestra coach have made the 70-year-old French musician almost indispensable.

A recent Berlin concert series whose program read like an academic tutorial - a weakness of Boulez's - included Berg's Three Pieces from the "Lyric Suite", Webern's Orchestral pieces (1913; posth.), Stravinsky's Symphonies for Wind Instruments, Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony of Psalms.

As in past Berlin performances, notably of Ravel and Webern, Boulez's ensemble discipline produced a massive wall of sound, supported by a well-positioned bass in the gut of the orchestra - traditional strengths of the Berlin Philharmonic. In addition, there was even a hint of pointillism in Boulez's musical direction. Markedly replenished with younger members over the last five years, the Prussian orchestra follows Boulez with professionalism, a little surprise and, at times, veiled hesitation (Boulez does not cultivate the orchestra's well-known acoustical "swagger").

Questioned at the end of the concert about the Philharmoniker's facility in 20th century repertoire, Boulez was categorical: it is the equal of the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony or the London Symphony. And the idea that the Berlin Philharmonic would be less convincing in Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok or Ravel than in Brahms, Schubert or Bruckner is, by his own standards, an outmoded cliché .

Pierre Boulez will tour five European capitals in late March at the head of another worldclass orchestra - the Vienna Philharmonic.


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