Classical Check-Up – 1955

Pierre Boulez’s “Le Marteau sans Maître” was perhaps, aside from “4’33,” the most talked-about premiere of the decade. It showed that high modernism could indeed be “popular,” and that classical could still drive the musical conversation. Though it’s hardly the best composition of the year.


Artist: Iannis Xenakis

Genre: Experimental Classical

Grade: A

A “sound mass” composition from the original Greek Freak, Metastaseis is a marvel of deconstruction. Massive drones ebb and flow like the world is collapsing in on itself, while a slight serial row provides the smallest hint of melodicism. Iannis Xenakis uses both architectural and mathematical principles to create a sound out of time — for roughly 8 minutes, Metastaseis is all there is and ever will be.

Violin Concerto No. 1

Artist: Dmitri Shostakovich

Genre: Romantic

Grade: A-

A symphonic concerto in four parts, with each movement containing its own identity, Shostakovich’s first violin concerto is a distinctive addition to the repertoire. Most notable is the diabolic “Scherzo,” a true danse macabre if ever I’ve heard one, and the stirring “Passacaglia,” a stark contrast that finds the featured soloist climbing a stairway to heaven.

Symphony No. 3 

Artist: Ernst Toch

Genre: Avant-Garde Classical

Grade: A-

Atonal and dissonant, yet remarkably restrained, it’s no wonder that Toch’s third symphony won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize. Perfectly blending elements of modernism and contemporary neoclassicism into a work that is as artful as it is playful, this is Ernst Toch (who?) in total command of the symphonic form. Bonus points for featuring organ and a CO2 noise machine.

Symphony No. 2 – “Mysterious Mountain”

Artist: Alan Hovahness

Genre: Neoclassical

Grade: A-

Not as “mysterious” as it should have been. Not as long either. But for those only asking for a Ralph Vaughan Williams tribute, you’ll like what you hear.

Joan Miro Le Marteau sans Maitre
Untitled (from Le Marteau sans Maitre), Joan Miro

Chamber Symphony, Op. 33 in E Major

Artist: George Enescu

Genre: Avant-Garde Classical

Grade: B+

Apparently the initial premiere received such a tepid response that the conductor addressed the audience and said, “This work is Enescu’s masterpiece, it is more difficult to grasp because of its advanced language, therefore we shall play it again in its entirety.” A little pretentious, no? An encore doesn’t mean play the whole damn thing over again.

So, after my initial listen left me similarly tepid, I decided to give Enescu’s Chamber Symphony a second chance. After all, the piece’s reputation has been held in high esteem ever since that subsequent performance. Might I be similarly swayed?

Come to find out I did enjoy the piece’s intricacies much more on second listen, but it still didn’t do much to increase my appreciation for Enescu’s overall body of work or Romania as a whole. The best melody is the first, which is never a good sign. But as far as swan songs go, the 73-year-old Enescu could have done a lot worse. Bonus points for deathbed stakes.

Le Marteau sans Maître

Artist: Pierre Boulez

Genre: Serialism

Grade: B

My initial notes: The exotic instrumentation is certainly intriguing, as is the overall jumpiness and erratic structure, yet Le Marteau sans Maître feels like an exercise in theoretical pointlessness. It isn’t until the gong sounds off in the final movement that there is any trace of melodicism. That’s probably the point, but still…

After having given both the 1973 and 2005 Boulez-conducted recordings of the piece multiple run-throughs, and having studied up on the surreal poetry of René Char, it’s safe to say that my initial opinion has largely remained the same. That is, Le Marteau Sans Maître is largely impenetrable.

I’ll admit, the compositional skill is uncanny, as are the various combinations of instruments, but just because “surreal” is close to “serial” doesn’t mean that the former goes hand-in-hand with the latter. If anything, Char’s poetry is better appreciated on its own terms rather than sprechgesang. Likewise, Boulez’s music proves he is a far better conductor than composer. You can’t have a hammer without a master and expect to hit the nail on the head.

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