Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (1) - Aimard/BPO/Boulez

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Bartók – Music for strings, percussion, and celesta
Ravel – Concerto for the left hand (piano) and orchestra in D major
Boulez – Notations I, VII, IV, III, and II

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Pierre Boulez, and the Berlin Philharmonic in a programme of twentieth-century orchestral masterpieces: how could it fail? Of course, it could not, for this proved an outstanding concert in every respect.

Bartok’s Music for strings, percussion, and celesta opened the programme. The viola opening sounded icy, frozen opening, with an utter inevitability in the build up to the climax of this opening fugal movement. Everything stood perfectly in proportion, thereby heightening the emotional import of the music, just as in Bach (everything, that is, except a watch alarm). Eerie beauty was enhanced by an excellent rendition of the celesta part. The return to freezing point, albeit from the first violins, was equally impressive, truly conveying the perfection of Bartók’s form. Division of the violins to right and left of the conductor – an unusual seating arrangement for Boulez, not continued in the second half – gave a true sense of answering back and forth in the ensuing Adagio. Precision of rhythm was absolute, again heightening rather than detracting from – as some might have it – the music’s expressive content. That applied to all of the musicians, though the piano part was perhaps especially noteworthy in this respect. A great mass of string tone, whether bowed or plucked, helped here too, without loss to exactitude. In Bartók’s almost Mozartian profusion of melody every line is – and was here – essential. Boulez’s reading was febrile but controlled: a perfect marriage. He and the Berlin players showed that the opening of the third movement can still sound weird, without resort to mere freakishness. Bartók’s trademark ‘night music’ benefited from chilling yet magical sonorities and, once again, absolute precision. The spatial element of the music was throughout readily apparent. Rhythm and melody came together in perfect harmony, as it were, for the finale, which also reminded us of the yearning quality in so much of this composer’s music.

It is a while before one hears the soloist in Ravel’s left-hand concerto. The orchestral introduction truly sounded as if it emerged de profundis, characterised by a grim determination unusual in Ravel’s œuvre. The upward swell thereafter was magnificent. Aimard’s response was implacable, marrying strength and clarity. One heard a degree of effort, which is written into the score, but one could also more or less imagine, as Ravel desired, that the soloist’s part should sound as if it were being played with two hands – and two expert hands at that. The ‘impressionist’ label has never suited Ravel, whose clearness of purpose is often diametrically opposed to the vagueness of much of Debussy, but here it should surely have been lain to rest. One could luxuriate in the piano and orchestral harmonies without a hint of indulgence; once again, command of structure was absolute. The same implacability and strength of rhythm characterised the second of the concerto’s two movements. We heard warm, yet sharply-etched, ‘Chinese’ character, recalling Ma mère l’oye, followed by mesmerising, Lisztian solo figuration, prior to the inexorability of the climax. Daphnis et Chloé met the blues.

Aimard then treated the clamorous audience to an encore: the five Boulez Notations in their original, non-extended piano guise. The orchestral versions stand alone but it was fascinating to hear their progenitors and, of course, a treat to hear them in such dazzling performances. Here the single-mindedness of the young Boulez, born of Webern’s concision, yet already straining at the bounds, sounded explosively beguiling. Where Webern, even in his questing late works, generally seems content to say what he has to say, Boulez (‘like a lion that has been flayed alive’ – Messiaen) is restless, his work never completed. I have never heard the piano Notations register with quite such éclat as here. If only we could have heard all twelve...

But there was equally dazzling success to be heard in the account from Boulez and the BPO. The first piece’s sonority resembled magnified Ravel, at least in the context of this programme. It seemed to me what Boulez has said about the ever-expanding implications and limits of serial technique might be applied to orchestral colour too. Nevertheless, there was a relative restraint, especially when considered in relation to some of the subsequent movements. The seventh, placed second, was beguiling, languorous, luxuriant: had a hint of Messiaen made its way into work and performance? In the expansiveness of this reading, this was unquestionably ‘late’ Boulez, redolent of the magic of sur Incises. In the fourth Notation, the orchestration was made to sound – as it is – worthy of, if unrecognisable to, Ravel. The Berlin percussion truly had a chance, superlatively taken, to shine here. Number three made me realise how Boulez, having once written for his own instrument, the piano, was now writing for his own instrument, the orchestra, the transformation owed to decades of conducting experience. The writing sounded almost hyper-Romantic – that magnification and expansion of possibilities again – which is not at all the same thing as the easy solution of neo-Romanticism. Finally, came the second Notation, a riot of precision. Every section of this great orchestra was tested and passed with flying colours. If there was perhaps not quite the abandon of Boulez’s LSO performance last year, it was a close run thing. As has become his practice, this final piece was encored.