Sunday, 11 May 2008

LSO/Boulez: Schoenberg, Pintscher, and Bartók, 11 May 2008

Barbican Hall

Schoenberg - Die glückliche Hand, Op.18
Matthias Pintscher - Osiris (British premiere)
Bartók - Bluebeard's Castle

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
Peter Fried (bass)
BBC Singers
London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

And so, we came to the second of Boulez's two LSO concerts this season. The performance of Die glückliche Hand was magnificent. Although Peter Fried's contribution was solid rather than inspiring, this seemed to matter little, since the real drama appeared to take place in the orchestra and in the chorus. The phantasmagoria of colours Boulez drew from the LSO was quite a revelation - and an extraordinary contrast with his rather flat Sony recording. (I do wonder whether the recordings are more at fault than the performances in his Sony Schoenberg series, but nevertheless remain sure that his greater experience, not least in the music of Mahler, has paid dividends in his more recent Schoenberg, which demands to be recorded.) Wild terror, rare beauty, and sometimes plain - or rather anything-but-plain - weirdness were all there in abundance during the unfoldling of this Expressionist nightmare. Details such as the early harp ostinato were projected with that clarity which eludes most musicians yet seems to be second nature to Boulez. To begin with, I wondered whether the BBC Singers sounded too much like individual voices, rather than 'a choir', but on reflection - and being convinced by their performance - appreciated that it was almost certainly my conception rather than theirs that was at fault. If one considers not only Schoenberg's wishes, but also the dictates of the drama, then mysterious, threatening, cajoling 'voices' is really just what they should be. I find the neglect of this score incomprehensible; let us hope that this performance will have left, as it should, many in the audience hungry for more.

The first British performance of Matthias Pintscher's Osiris received a commanding performance. (Consider the fortune of the composer who has Boulez to conduct the earliest performances of his works!) The early string-based textures, stemming from individual, twisting lines put me in mind of late Mahler (the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies). There was, moreover, a strong sense of this being something akin to a late-Romantic tone poem. This is not to say that the harmonies were straightforwardly of Mahler's or even Berg's world, but equally they were not wholly divorced from those composers' worlds. The intensification of the textures brought with it an 'updating' of the style, almost as if we were being asked to take a synoptic journey through the modernist inheritance. Ligeti's Ramifications was a work that came strongly to mind. This may of course merely represent my attempts at understanding rather than anything more fundamental to the work itself, but I wonder. As the textures diversified further, and the rest of the orchestra played an increasingly prominent role, I thought also of Messiaen, especially as the themes sounded more fragmentary. The coincidence with some of Messiaen's bird-song may again be no more than that. There were superb solos from the contrabass clarinettist and principal trumpet; the percussionists increasingly enjoyed a field day. Surely no section of the orchestra has benefited more from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I had no doubt of the strong narrative drive of the work, which further hearings would doubtless render clearer. In Pintscher's overall approach to modernist tradition, I was reminded of Wolfgang Rihm, which is not to say that one could mistake one for the other.

The account of Bluebeard's Castle (sadly, minus Prologue) was for the most part excellent, although I did not react so ecstatically as some in the audience. There was a section, a little after the duly overwhelming opening of the fifth door, in which I thought the orchestra - and perhaps its direction too - sounded just a little laboured, tired even. There were also occasions when its rhythmic bite might have been more pronounced, although this was doubtless to some extent a product of Boulez's rather Debussyan conception of the textures: closer to The Wooden Prince and even to Pelléas than to more typically 'Hungarian' readings. Fried was somewhat disappointing, variable in his ability to project the text over the orchestra. His timbre was suitably black, but often rather dry. (Think of John Tomlinson in this repertoire, and one appreciates what was missing.) Michelle DeYoung had no such difficulties, and also proved herself unfailingly musical with regard to the general - and particular - musical 'line'. Orchestral soli were without exception of the highest order, and the work's conclusion, subsiding into eery nothingness, was simply breathtaking. There were certainly most of the ingredients for a great performance here and, perhaps on another occasion and with another Bluebeard, this is what it would have been.

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