Pierre Boulez composed his piano work Douze Notations in 1945. After its première in February of that year (by Yvette Grimaud), the piece was subsequently withdrawn by Boulez (evidently already regarding it as outdated), who only relented and allowed it to be published in the mid-1980s. Despite this, in 1946 Boulez privately worked on an arrangement of 11 of them (No. 6 was omitted) for ensemble, and from the late 1970s reworked five of them, Nos. 1 to 4 and 7, for orchestra. Apparently, the intention was to create more orchestral versions, as Boulez mentioned in 2012 that he was working on No. 8, though this was never completed.
The orchestral Notations are markedly different from the piano versions, expanded in form and scope, so in 2011 German composer Johannes Schöllhorn set out to orchestrate them for ensemble, retaining the concise brevity of the originals. Three of these were given their first UK performance at the 2015 Proms, marking Boulez’s 90th birthday (he died the following January), by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Franck Ollu.
Schöllhorn’s approach with No. 2 doesn’t quite have the ferocity of the piano original – interesting considering its progression from just one instrument to many – though it nicely colours the central shift away from wild, aggressive clusterbombs to something like a mechanical machine.
Schöllhorn’s version of No. 10 shifts timbres according to Boulez’s playful mix of cross rhythms (triplets and quintuplets) and regular versus rapid phrases, around a centre where everything comes together for a brief moment of rhythmic focus and unity. BCMG’s performance nicely lives up to Boulez’s curt demand, “absoluement sans nuances”.
Boulez mark’s Notation No. 11 ‘Scintillant’ (glittering), but Schöllhorn gives that an icy interpretation in his orchestrated version. The notes have a chilly demeanour, reinforced by a lack of vibrato and string tremolandos, and the two central chords are decidedly dark and foreboding. Appropriately, the original instruction that “Faire ressortir le chant en sauts disjoints” (bring out the melody in disjointed jumps) is realised by having the piano in the ensemble sustain each note of the melody, and Schöllhorn’s use of hanging notes creates a nice simulation of Boulez’s desired “beaucoup de pédale” effect.
In addition to orchestrating Boulez’s originals, Johannes Schöllhorn also created an additional Notation, which he titled La treizième. The piece is a patchwork, using a single bar from each of the 12 Notations, the bar number corresponding to the number of the Notation (i.e. No. 1 = bar 1, … No. 12 = bar 12). Though it’s clearly just a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun, the piece nonetheless highlights how behaviourally cohesive the original Notations really are, since when chopped up in this way, the effect is utterly schizophrenic, offering momentary windows into a dozen very different, self-contained worlds.
With apologies to Universal Edition for such a crude cut and paste job, below is a quick and dirty mock-up of what the imaginary ‘original’ piano score of La treizième would look like.