Saturday 31 January 2009

Salzburg Mozartwoche (1): Jörg and Carolin Widmann, Hidéki Nagano - works by Boulez, 31 January 2009

Solitär, Universität Mozarteum, Salzburg,

Boulez – Piano sonata no.1 (1946)
Boulez – Dialogue de l’ombre double, for clarinet and tape (1982-5)
Boulez – Une page d’éphéméride, for piano solo (2005, Austrian premiere)
Boulez – Anthèmes 2, for violin and electronics (1998)

Experimental Studio of the Südwestrundfunk Freiburg
Michael Acker and Joachim Hass (sound projection)
Hidéki Nagano (piano)
Carolin Widmann (violin)
Jörg Widmann (clarinet)

This year’s Salzburg Mozartwoche has no fewer than four featured composers. One hardly needs mentioning; another, commemorating the bicentenary of his death, is Haydn. The other two are both very much alive: Pierre Boulez and Matthias Pintscher. This concert was devoted to works by Boulez for three different solo instruments, with or without tape or electronics. It began with a typically fascinating conversation between the composer and the festival’s artistic director, Stephan Pauly. Boulez reiterated his long-standing opposition towards the idea of some sort of ‘golden age’: important to heed, as has this festival, by encouraging artists to programme works by Mozart with those of ‘modern’ composers, from Debussy onwards. Moreover, as Boulez pointed out, the greatest works of their time – he cited Don Giovanni and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – are remarkable at least as much for the seeds of what is to come as for their standing in their own time. Today’s musical vocabulary is different, of course, but linguistic ‘understanding’ – he and Pauly discussed the meaning and implications of the German verb ‘verstehen’ – is different from musical ‘understanding’. Boulez went back as far as Gesualdo and his dramatic, some might say violent, opposition between diatonic and chromatic music to illustrate his points. Another important theme, which would recur during the works performed, was the relationship between form and expression.

Having worked with the Ensemble Intercontemporain since 1996, Hidéki Nagano was an ideal choice to perform two of Boulez’s works for solo piano. The first sonata received a fine performance, full of dramatic contrasts, whether of dynamics, sonorities, or harmony. (In general, of course, we are considering a combination of these and indeed of many other varieties.) What Boulez had said about understanding of a work’s historical position was brought home here, Nagano imparting a sense of breaking away not only from classical sonata forms, essentially a staging point towards their ‘destruction’ in the awe-inspiring second sonata, but also from the vocabulary of the earlier Notations. The hints of Bartók, Messiaen, and Webern have not been entirely banished, but there is a sense of restlessness with their language and its implications, a restlessness that adds urgency to the dramatic sweep of the two-movement work.

Une page d’éphéméride is the first in a cycle for piano on which Boulez is currently at work. On the evidence of this first instalment, Pages d’éphéméride bids fair to be Boulez’s most substantial addition to the solo piano literature since the third, or perhaps even the second, sonata. It is difficult to tell from not only a single hearing but also a piece heard in isolation, but I sensed some kind of summation, consonant with the greater equanimity of the composer in (relatively) old age, a piece audibly from the composer of sur Incises. At a safer distance, the composer seems more willing – and able – to offer a rapprochement to the sonorities and perhaps even to the harmonies of twentieth-century composers: not only Debussy but, rather to my surprise, Schoenberg too. The piano-writing is no less idiomatic than it ever was; yet, without classicising, there seems less of an imperative than during the heady years of a post-Second World War ‘year zero’ to break so violently with what has gone before. Suffice it to say, this is neither a mere page, nor remotely ephemeral. Nagano’s performance made that abundantly clear.

In between the two piano works, we heard the Dialogue de l’ombre double. Boulez has generally been fortunate in his interpreters, but it is difficult to imagine a clarinettist better equipped for this work than Jörg Widmann, given his experience both as performer and composer. The clarinettist’s dialogue with a ‘double shadow’, such as one might sometimes see in the canals of Venice, was hauntingly conveyed. (The ghost of Debussy re-appears, perhaps?) Echoes rebound; reflections become almost audible. The spatial aspect is important – Boulez in the preliminary discussion made reference to spectators at a game of tennis – but more important is the intertwining, the wandering that grants the listener a strange feeling that he too is moving around the acoustic space. I was led to recall Boulez’s earlier comment, already exemplified in the performance of the first piano sonata, that composers had long disregarded the importance of music’s acoustical qualities, that is of particular notes played upon particular instruments, as a parameter in composition.

And yet, as the composer had pointed out with regard to Mozart and Beethoven, an important work very much of its time also points the way to subsequent developments. In Anthèmes 2, itself an offshoot of ...explosante-fixe..., the use of electronics is more advanced, in that they are ‘live’ participants in the process. There is nothing arbitrary about this; what little interest in Cage Boulez once evinced is long behind him. However, there are elements of probability and surprise, as Monika Woitas commented in her programme note. At least as telling, however, are the connections to tradition. Elements of the violin figuration seemed – at least to me – to pay homage to the Baroque writing of Bach. I do not mean in the sense of quotation and it may not even be a matter of intention, but it was interesting to note and to wonder what this might ‘mean’. One can easily forget that Boulez, in the days when he conducted more, was concerned to delve far back into the holdings of ‘the museum’, and to exhibit them in the light of newer work. Bach often featured in his programmes. The excellent violinist, Carolin Widmann, has done similarly in her programming and proved an ideal choice. Her virtuosity and musical ‘understanding’ were never in question. I was most impressed by the way in which the score appeared to have been assimilated into her repertoire, just as if it had been Bach. Mention should also be made of Michael Acker and Joachim Hass, whose sound projection is of such crucial importance. Although in one sense a ‘solo’ piece, this is very much a collaborative effort, as in more ‘traditional’ chamber music. And once again, that collaboration includes the listener, which is just as it should be.