Mozart: Serenade K.361/370a 'Gran Partita'; Berg: Chamber Concerto

Mitsuko Uchida; Christian Tetzlaff; Ensemble Intercontemporain/Pierre Boulez (Decca 4780316)

17 November 2008 4.5 stars

The idea of pairing Mozart and Berg – or more generally juxtaposing the first and second Viennese schools – is not necessarily new but this new release from Decca has a genuine feeling of discovery about it.

One can't really imagine Pierre Boulez and his Ensemble Intercontemporain recording Mozart independently of any sort of modern twist, but the performance of the sublime 'Gran Partita' Serenade, K.361/370a, demonstrates what outstanding musicians these are in this repertory. It's a sprightly reading that sounds incongruous when looking at the picture inside the booklet of a stern Boulez perusing a score: it sounds very much as though the great iconoclast is simply enjoying himself. Nor can one blame him, and there's an infectious and straight-forward joie-de-vivre to the about the result.

Some of the tempi are a touch on the fast side: there's a definite emphasis on the molto of the first movement's Molto allegro marking, for example. The first Menuetto sounds a little mechanic, although the first trio is touchingly done with lovely, gentle, mellifluous playing from the clarinets in particular, and the second as magical as ever.

The Adagio is performed at a flowing tempo but with a winningly unobtrusive musicality, the group's principal oboe outstanding. There's no lack of characterisation in the in Romance's Allegretto central section, and the Tema con variazioni receives a delightful performance. If one could discern an approach from Boulez, it would be a rare type of objectivity, one that rather than precluding the potential for expression, helps to create an admirable feeling of organicism from which the glorious colours produced by his players – particularly in creating delicate, hushed cushions of sound when Mozart calls for – and their individual characterisations of the melodic line seem to be entirely free from artifice. These textures are particularly arresting in the final variation of the sixth movement, and the fast performance of the final Molto allegro benefits from an irresistible swagger.

Although the 'Gran Partita', at just shy of fifty minutes long, is often presented without a coupling, Decca provide a generous playing time of over eighty minutes and it's the truly outstanding performance of Berg's Chamber Concerto that will probably be the disc's major selling point. This is not least because it features two soloists in Christian Tetzlaff and Mitsuko Uchida who one can hardly imagine bettered.

The obvious common ground in terms of numbers – both works include thirteen wind instruments, although in the case of the Berg this extends to members of the 'brass' family – is less interesting than the musical similarities, discussed at length by Boulez, Uchida and Tetzlaff in a fascinating interview printed in the booklet. In the performers' view, hearing the works together underlines their classicism and drama but performing them together also goes some way to explain the miraculous clarity and delicacy achieved by the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Boulez mentions the problems often encountered with balance, but given the minutely observed dynamics and the textural lucidity achieved, these problems seem no longer to exist.

This is evident right from the start of the work, distinguished by some particularly fine flute playing. Throughout, too, the group's trumpeter is to be congratulated for reining in his sound to blend in perfectly with the ensemble. But then, in the first movement, there's the extraordinary playing of Uchida, minutely controlled but sounding free and improvisatory. Tetzlaff is every bit her equal in the beautiful Adagio and he is as convincing in the moments of imperceptible hush as in the tension of some of the central sections.

The finale is probably the most 'difficult' of the momevents but such is Boulez's grip on proceedings and the quality of the playing that the writing, which can sound fractured and disconnected, fits together logically. 

The booklet interview has the three artists talking with straight-forward, unpretentious passion about both works and this comes across in the performances. Decca's engineering is exemplary. A fascinating disc.

By Hugo Shirley