Thursday 14 August 2008

Prom 39: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim, 14 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Boulez – Mémoriale (‘... explosante-fixe ...’ Originel)
Stravinsky – L’histoire du soldat (in French)

Guy Eshed (flute)
Patrice Chéreau (narrator)
Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The genesis of Mémoriale is complicated and protracted even by Boulez’s standards. A simplified presentation would say that it emerged as a piece for solo flute, two horns, and six strings, as a memorial for Ensemble Intercontemporain flautist, Lawrence Beauregard, the material originating in the ‘kit’ for ‘... explosante-fixe’, itself intended as a memorial for Stravinsky and therefore especially apposite for the present programme. Electronics thus play no part, although they do in ‘... explosante-fixe ...’, yet an interesting aspect of this performance was how much the strings were suggestive of such means. They also produced a beautiful halo-like impression, albeit with a properly Boulezian sense of the febrile. The music, to which all instrumentalists contributed with great sensitivity, captured an equally Boulezian sense of the shimmering and ever-expanding, serial music – and that of Boulez in particular –being characterised by its unending possibilities for continuation, development, and liberation from fixed endings. Guy Eshed was an outstanding soloist, both musically and technically. None of the intricacies of Boulez’s exquisite, almost culinary line held any fear for him, but this was never virtuosity for its own sake. Inevitable reminiscences of Debussy added to the finely-honed, ineffable ‘Frenchness’ of this excellent performance. It was touching to have Boulez in the audience come to the stage in order to share in the applause.

Boulez and Barenboim have been close musical collaborators and friends ever since they performed Bartók’s First Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1964. Patrice Chéreau’s name will ever be linked with that of Boulez as a result of their collaboration on the legendary ‘Centenary-Ring’ at Bayreuth, the first production of the three-act version of Lulu, and more recently, a universally-acclaimed From the House of the Dead; Chéreau also once acted as narrator for a 1980 Ensemble Intercontemporain performance of L’histoire du soldat under Boulez. Links with Barenboim have also been strong, including productions of Wozzeck, Don Giovanni, and most recently Tristan und Isolde. These various interconnections added another layer of interest to the intelligent programming. It is fair to say that this was above all Chéreau’s performance. He threw himself with such gusto into his roles as narrator, soldier, and Devil, that one could almost see the missing puppets. Charles Ferdinand Ramuz’s text was not always adhered to word for word, but that did not matter in the slightest. One sensed the genius of Chéreau as a director, an animateur, and indeed he proved himself no mean actor. (He actually appeared on stage as Siegfried at Bayreuth on one occasion, whilst a replacement tenor sang from the wings.) This was a visual performance too, which made it seem such a pity that many members of the audience rarely looked up from the text and translation in the programme. I suspect that one would have discerned most of what was going on from Chéreau’s expressivity even if one understood not a word of French. As the work progresses, it becomes more musical in nature. Barenboim and his players proved fine exponents of this extraordinary score. Its potent mix of rhythmic insistence, thematic and colouristic economy and yet expressivity, and of course its instant, nagging memorability, was captured well throughout. Guy Braunstein returned, to play on the Devil’s own instrument; his performance was everything one might have expected. I was also especially impressed by Dan Moshayev’s contribution on percussion. But all of the players contributed a great deal, both in solo and ensemble terms. Barenboim clearly trusted enough in their abilities to permit them considerable leeway at times, whilst directing them strongly where required. More than once I thought of Busoni in terms of the harmonies and general ambience. Barenboim has considerable experience with Busoni’s music, so a sense of kinship between the Italian composer’s Junge Klassität and a work heading towards Stravinskian neo-classicism may not have been surprising; that does not make it any the less welcome. There might sometimes have been greater aggression to be heard in so polemical a score than one heard here, but this remained an excellent performance. It projected well into the capricious, cavernous expanses of the Royal Albert Hall too.