Queen Elizabeth Hall
Michael Cox (flute)
Clio Gould (violin)
Carlo Laurenzi (IRCAM computer production)
Jérémie Henrot (IRCAM sound engineer)
Péter Eötvös (conductor)
The second day of the Southbank Centre’s Boulez celebration was composed of a conference, with contributors ranging from Pierre-Laurent Aimard to Arnold Whittall, and this evening concert, focusing on works with live electronics. The derivation from – or perhaps better, expansion and proliferation of – Anthèmes 2 from the original Anthèmes for violin solo, itself derived from the violin part to a realisation of …explosante-fixe..., imparted strong material coherence to the programme as a whole, though just as striking was the astonishing explosion of variety from a single source (ultimately a 1971 kit), arguably still further than that, a single E-flat (German ‘Es’) as a memorial to Stravinsky – and surely also a nod to the opening E-flat of Das Rheingold). If only we could have heard the related Répons too…
First, however we were treated to a conversation between Aimard and Boulez himself. The warmth of initial applause for the composer, suffering from a cold, was striking: a fitting tribute to a career, whether as composer, conductor, essayist, educator, administrator, or simply musical conscience, which continues to dwarf those of so many who have assumed but one of those roles. It was enlightening, especially as a prelude to such a programme, to be reminded of how Boulez has considered electronics above all in terms of a conception of space to clarify polyphony (as opposed to a kind of spectacular spatial tennis, though that may sometimes come into the work relatively incidentally). The method of comparing material whose implications, or many of its implications, Boulez has worked through with those which he has not was delineated as crucial to the composition of those works to be performed – and others, too. Far from coincidentally, the beginning of such explorations was related to his work on the Ring at Bayreuth; indeed, Boulez commented on the inspiration he derived from Wagner: ideas stated in Das Rheingold, only fully exploited in Götterdämmerung. Though this may be more strongly evinced in the orchestral Notations, there is surely precedent for this series of electronic works too. (As a young man, Boulez commented, one has many ideas, but one does not always yet know what to do with them.) Pli selon pli was also discussed, Boulez insisting – and who would need to be convinced?! – that he was not writing algebra, but composing according to the meaning of Mallarmé’s verse, for instance the importance of the number eight, and the dialectic between ornamented and syllabic vocal writing. That, however, was really a story for another day. On all occasions, however, we were to hear how to a certain extent Boulez’s experience as a conductor might, as he put it, have helped ‘destroy’ his experience as a composer. For, as Bakunin, Dresden comrade-in-arms to Wagner, famously remarked, the urge to destroy is fundamentally creative.
Anthèmes 2 was mesmerizingly performed by Clio Gould, Sound Intermedia, and the IRCAM team of Carlo Laurenzi and Jérémie Henriot. I was more or less immediately struck by the Messiaenesque cast of some of the harmonies: something I did not recall noticing before. (Perhaps it was partly a matter of Messiaen having featured so strongly in some of the conference papers.) One hears different things at different times, of course, or at least one does in music worthy of repeated hearings. And from the very outset, I could not help but be seduced by Gould’s exquisite tone, arguably more Gallic in sonority than earlier performances I had heard from Michael Barenboim in Berlin and Carolin Widmann in Salzburg. Actually, there was something of the tennis match spectacular to the electronic to-and-froing, for instance in the second, pizzicato section, but only something, and this was certainly never a sonic ‘spectacular’ for its own sake. Electronics did not merely impress, though; they haunted, too, providing an endlessly fascinating envelope and penumbra for the soloist. Gould’s reading was sharply characterised, offering both contrast and unity, within a fine narrative – for this is, amongst many other things, musical drama – framework: it was playful; it was still; it was so much in between, often all at the same time. One sensed composer and musicians reaching for the skies, very much in line with Boulez’s conception of serialism as an endlessly expanding universe. Instrumentally, one could sense the potential for a full-scale concerto (Anthèmes 3, for violin, orchestra, and electronics, is eagerly awaited), yet at other times one heard a solo work, at others a duet, at others still a successor to the Bach sonatas for violin and continuo. Horizons are for Boulez always there to be expanded. The Queen Elizabeth Hall proved an excellent space for the work and its projection: superior, at least in that respect, both to the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (hardly surprisingly!) and to the the Salzburg Mozarteum’s Solitär space.
This would also be the evening when, long having been fascinated by …explosante-fixe…, I came truly to fall in love with it: surely at least in part a consequence of an equally mesmerising performance from John Cox, electronics again, the London Sinfonietta (including flautists, Helen Keen and Rebecca Larsen), and Péter Eötvös. It might have been a much smaller ensemble than that Boulez employs for his ongoing Notations, but such were the initial and subsequent exultancy that it did not necessarily sound so. Throughout, this would prove a veritable garden of delights – and of almost Haydn-like invention: so many possibilities, some taken, some doubtless remaining. The flute is an instrument I can soon tire of, but not here, not in the slightest. One of the conference papers had suggested that we might profitably understood much of Boulez’s music as being ‘about’ music, but that was not how it sounded here; if anything, this was closer to the ‘absolute’ music of German Romantic æsthetics: music, pure if far from simple. Arnold Whittall’s description of Boulez’s latter-day ‘modern classicism’ came to mind. If Stockhausen in his electronic music claimed to be writing from, for, or to outer space, Boulez proved more evocative of another world, aspirant, fantastic – and, of course, seductive. By the time we returned, or rather turned, to the final ‘Originel’ – generative, but concluding – we seemed to hark back to the delicacy of earlier tombeaux: Debussy, Ravel, even Rameau. The material was transformed by what it had earlier become. Lighting – or rather dimming – was sensitively employed for the ‘purely’ electronic music: it made a point without becoming the point. This must qualify as one of the most exciting Boulez performances I have heard, showing up the nasty carping, whether in France or elsewhere, Boulez and his music still endure, as the risible product of ignorance and envy.