Thursday, 1 May 2008

LSO/Boulez: Bartók, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Boulez, 30 April 2008

Barbican Hall, London

Bartók – Concerto for two pianos and percussion
Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Stravinsky – Le chant du Rossignol
Boulez – Notations I, VII, IV, III, and II

Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich (piano)
Neil Percy and Nigel Thomas (percussion)
London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

Bartók wrote his concerto for himself and his wife to perform in America, deriving it from the Sonata for two pianos and percussion. It received a commanding performance here, as, given the identity of the performers, one would expect. Rhythms were razor-sharp, orchestral colour truly shone, and there was never even the slightest hint of a loss of implacable direction. My only reservation really lay with the work itself, which seems to me to have lost the extraordinary sonority and large-scale intimacy – if the contradiction be allowed – of its original form, without truly having been rewritten enough to qualify as a new work. The orchestra is often, although not always, resigned to an accompanying role, which can on occasion obscure the clarity of lines so crucial to the work’s success. That said, if anyone could combat such obscurity it was Pierre Boulez, and he did a fine job.

Boulez has long championed Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces. They, unsurprisingly, received once again an excellent performance here. There were numerous lines, such as that of the xylophone in the first movement, which I heard with greater clarity than I can recall from other performances. The brass was duly brutal, though without brashness, in that movement’s chilling conclusion. Vergangenes, the second movement, received a languorous and indeed seductive opening. If the sonorities beguiled, so also did the twists and turns in respect of melody, harmony, and tempo. The lower strings sounded especially heartfelt, and there was an almost Debussyan perfect balance of timbres throughout, leading one inexorably into the Klangfarbenmelodie of the third piece. Here Debussy once again came to mind, although, quite righly, in the guise of the darkness of Pelléas rather than of anything more perfumed. Indeed, the timbres sounded more suffocating than usual. There was no doubt that Boulez was conducting with hindsight, for the melody of colours not only harked back to earlier Debussy but also looked forward to the post-war experiments of Darmstadt. It seemed that Schoenberg might not even then have been so dead as the young Boulez had once claimed. Rhythmic precision, which can often be overlooked in this music, was as impeccable as one would expect from Boulez, which prepared the way very well for the fourth movement. (The sense of the five pieces forming part of a greater whole was throughout most impressive.) Peripetie proved a movement of great contrasts, which showcased, although never in a shallow way, the dazzling orchestral virtuosity of Schoenberg, Boulez, and the LSO. The final piece provided us with a real narrative – it is, after all, a ‘recitative’ of sorts – which heightened the influence of Wagner, both horizontally and vertically. Supremely disciplined and therefore heightened drama was the order of the day as the shattering conclusion came upon us.

Drama was also the order of the day in Stravinsky’s tone poem, Chant du rossignol. In this case, the narrative was more redolent, quite appropriately, of a series of balletic tableaux, culminating in a real sense of discovery at the end as the true Nightingale’s song won out over its competitors. In this respect, the flute and its rivals were beyond criticism; all of their individual lines were beautifully shaped and as sharply characterised as one could ask. The trumpet soloist also deserves special mention, not least for his reminiscences of Mussorgsky in the courtiers’ funeral march. Stravinsky was always a Russian composer. This we also heard in the mix of telegraph wire and Shrovetide Fair with which Stravinsky and Boulez brought us back to old St Petersburg.

Programming has always been a great strength of Boulez, and this was no exception. The performance of his five existing – or at least published – orchestral Notations made one realise how much he owed to each of the featured predecessors, whilst also exhibiting his extraordinary originality. If ever there were a showcase for a virtuosic yet also truly musical orchestra, then this is it. The physical size of the conductor’s score is in itself remarkable. This is a work-in-progress that requires no fewer than eight percussionists, and divides the strings into as many as forty different parts. The sense, omnipresent in Boulez, of teeming proliferation, never finished and indeed impossible to finish, was definitively present under the composer’s own direction. A sense of what Calum MacDonald in the programme notes called ‘an exotic ritual procession’ was palpable in the – relatively – lengthy seventh Notation, with its wonderful marking ‘hiératique’. There were hints of the Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, perhaps even of Balinese music, and certainly – at least in this performance – of Parsifal. It is undeniable that the experience of Bayreuth has changed Boulez for ever. The skeleton of the piano original is perhaps most readily heard in IV, ‘Rhythmique’. Here Bartók and Stravinsky vied with Webern to create something audibly fresh and new, but then one could say much the same about any of the pieces. The extraordinary second Notation, with which the performance closed, is such a riot of orchestral colours and so viscerally enjoyable – yes, Boulez can be extremely enjoyable, if only one deigns to listen – that it was encored with an exhilarating sense of jubilation.