Royal Festival Hall
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Lucerne Festival Academy Ensemble
Pierre Boulez (conductor)
What an embarrassment of riches there has been over this weekend, opening with Rozenne Le Trionnaire’s fine account of the solo version of Domaines, and now climaxing in Pli selon pli, from Barbara Hannigan, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Lucerne Festival Academy Ensemble (another Boulez initiative), and Pierre Boulez himself. This is a work, apparently now complete, whose stature appears to grow with every hearing: there can certainly now be no doubt that it is one of the towering masterpieces of post-war music. But alongside the revisions, it is equally interesting to note Boulez’s transformation of approach as a conductor. His reading certainly does not lack bite, as the ejaculating éclat of both opening and closing chords made clear, but the sonorities seem to have become still more ravishing. More than once I was put in mind of his recent conducting of Szymanowski, and of course his increasingly Romantic approach to the music of the Second Viennese School. For all Boulez’s talk of having devoted too much of his life to conducting, it has clearly enriched his compositional life so greatly that there really are no grounds for such regret and, once again, we heard a conducted performance that was more new composition in the light of recent experience than mere presentation of a work from the museum. (That, by no means incidentally, holds as much for his Wagner and Mahler, his Berlioz and Debussy, as for his own works.)
Following that extraordinary opening chord, we were bathed in the delectable light of Barbara Hannigan’s soprano, her breathing unabashedly sensual, and some truly gorgeous instrumental playing. The Szymanowski-like tapestry unfolded with a perfect balance between clarity and mystery, possibility and purpose: perhaps the essence of what Arnold Whittall has referred to as Boulez’s later ‘modern classicism’. There is something of that quality to his more recent conducting too: contrast the early, angry accounts of Le marteau sans maître and even Pli selon pli, with his more recent work. I do not necessarily prefer one above the other, but experience reaps an undeniably rich harvest. If I thought of Szymanowski, I also thought of Mozart: what ears to envisage such sounds, whether the latter’s Gran Partita, which Boulez has recently recorded with the EIC, or Pli selon pli, let alone to translate such aural imagination into reality! Strings evinced Messiaenesque sweetness, and I fancied that I heard something of a dawn chorus too. The pizzicati of ‘Don’ sounded almost balletic: ‘mellowing’ is not quite the right word to describe the conductor’s development, but a greater willingness to ravish is certainly present and welcome. At another extreme – I was going to say ‘the other’, but Boulez is always more complex than mere binary opposition would allow – there were occasional hints of a viol consort, refracted through the ages.
In the first Improvisation, Hannigan sounded as seductive, as erotic, as a Mélisande, a Salome even, whilst the orchestra surrounding her seemed clearly to draw upon Boulez’s readings of works as apparently different as Das Lied von der Erde – what a contrast with Lorin Maazel’s latest effort in that work! – and Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi. ‘Une dentelle s’abolit’ brought a primal scream upon ‘blême’, yet one whose instrumental aftermath both consoled and aroused. Percussion seemed to foreshadow, and yet in performance already go beyond, a work such as Rituel. Of course, the words are almost as beautiful as the music, and the melismatic writing of the third Improvisation heightened our sense of both, especially when so expertly delivered as by Hannigan. Percussion once again came to the fore, both a visual spectacular – the coordination of the players – as well as an aural banquet. ‘Tombeau’ sounded inevitable resonances with other tombeaux, whether Boulez’s own or those of other composers: again I thought of Das Lied von der Erde and Rituel, but also of the bells in Boris Godunov, rejoicing now turned to other ends. The final horn call seemed to evoke Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, one of many farewells to German Romanticism that are yet not quite farewells. For its æsthetic has probably never quite been negated, certainly not by Boulez; via Mallarmé, it may even have been dialectically reinstated, ‘aufgehoben’. Certainly the final blow, cataclysmic yet undeniably pleasurable, suggested less a final full circle than an Hegelian spiral.