Boulez sans Boulez
Release Date 1995
Catalogue No. LNT108
Marc Ponthus (piano)
Linda Hirst (mezzo-soprano)
Odaline de la Martínez (conductor)
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The dearth of alternative recordings of Le marteau sans maître in current catalogues could be taken as evidence that, even in the pluralistic 1990s, Boulez's uncompromising masterwork has had its day. It is therefore a particular virtue of this performance that no attempt is made to smooth over the texture's brittle surface, and Linda Hirst's account of the intermittent but crucial vocal part offers an ample variety of tone colour that reinforces Le marteau's affinity with that earlier, equally uncompromising modern masterwork, Pierrot lunaire.
Some listeners may be disconcerted by a lack of Gallic suavity, a sense of effort not inconsistent with a group of performers counting like mad as they weave their collective way through Boulez's intricate metrical maze. The whole nevertheless holds together well as an intensely dramatic experience - perhaps too dramatic, in the sense that the recording doesn't always allow the lighter tone colours (viola and guitar) to come through, and the xylorimba player seems to have some difficulty in shading down dynamics when required. As for the tam-tams and gong that preside ceremonially over the work's final stages - they can rarely have sounded more arresting, more imposing than they do here.
A dry, at times harsh sound is apparent in this recording of the first Piano Sonata. Marc Ponthus attacks the extensive toccata-like sections with such digital bravura that the quieter episodes are in danger of sounding more disengaged than poetically restrained. It's a powerful performance, however: even if you already have another account of this remarkably mature early work, this one provides a worthwhile alternative, and it fits well with Odaline de la Martinez's compellingly forceful Marteau.