Thursday 8 April 2010

Berlin Festtage (4) - Hommage à Pierre Boulez: Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Boulez and Barenboim, 4 April 2010

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Boulez – Messagesquisse, for violoncello solo and six violoncelli
Anthèmes 2, for violin solo and live electronics
Le Marteau sans maître

Hilary Summers (contralto)
Michael Barenboim (violin)
Hassan Moataz El Molla (violoncello)
Andrew Gerzso (IRCAM computer music designer)
Arshia Cont (IRCAM computer production)
Frédéric Prin (IRCAM sound engineer)
Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez (conductors)

It was not quite Pierre Boulez’s 85th birthday, which had fallen on 26 March, but this all-Boulez concert at the Linden opera house, bilingually entitled Hommage à Pierre Boulez zum 85. Geburtstag, marked the climax of the Berlin celebrations for this anniversary. Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra were led by Daniel Barenboim in the opening Messagesquisse and the composer himself in Anthèmes 2 and Le marteau sans maître.

The young Egyptian cellist, Hassan Moataz El Molla, was the excellent soloist in Messagesequisse, joined by six colleagues: Sary Khalifeh, Alberto Martos Lozano, Noa Chorin, Jana Semaan, Linor Katz, and Nassib Ahmadieh. Although there is no electronic element, the use of six other cellos provides a spatial element. These instruments are less an ‘orchestra’, at least in the typical concerto sense, than agents that further, develop, deepen, amplify the solo line. Sometimes akin to a penumbra, sometimes providers of kinetic energy, they present a commentary upon and broadening of the serial processes at work, which, typically for Boulez, provide unity even if they cannot necessarily be heard in themselves. (Here, actually, one can, hear them, at least at times.) Careful shading is crucial – and so it was in this performance. Boulez’s tribute to Paul Sacher, written in 1976 for that great musical patron, became a fitting opening tribute to the composer himself.

Anthèmes 2, which I had heard from Carolin Widmann in Salzburg last year, was now bravely essayed by Michael Barenboim. As pointed out in the excellent programme notes by Yuri Isabella Kato, Boulez’s titles for both the former and present work are portmanteau neologisms, derived from messages and esquisses in the one case, and thèmes and the English ‘anthems’ in the latter. This performance, though hardly without virtuosity – how could it be? – seemed perhaps less overtly so than Widmann’s, live electronics, expertly provided by the IRCAM team under the composer’s supervision, very much to the fore, with speakers placed around the relatively small house. Boulez’s sound world could now be truly transformed, technological developments enabling the electronic developments of which he had long hoped. There was to this performance a fine sense of the open-endedness, the lack of closure, which for Boulez has always been a crucial aspect of serial procedure. It was telling and appropriate, then, that the electronic sound should fade after that of the violinist.

After the interval came what perhaps remains the composer’s most celebrated work, Le Marteau sans maître. Hilary Summers, who sings the contralto part in Boulez’s most recent recording, was joined by Guy Eshed on flute, violist Ori Kam, Caroline Delume on guitar, percussionist Tomer Yariv, and Pedro Manuel Torréjon Gonzáles and Adi Morag on vibraphone and xylorimba respectively. It is by now unavoidable, and indeed quite right, that Le Marteau sans maître has become a ‘classic’, but that did not prevent a sense of rediscovery, doubtless aided by the youthful enthusiasm of the instrumentalists. What an opportunity for them – and how well taken! Allusions, subtle but to this listener unmistakeable, to Pierrot lunaire were to be heard even in the first movement: the lineage is not straightforward but certainly exists. The precision of rhythmic underpinning ensured that warmth and fantasy could be developed above. Voices were both distinctive and complementary, sometimes even merging, as in the flute and viola’s near-marriage at the end of L’Artisanat furieux and the increasing ‘instrumental’ quality of the contralto’s contribution to the final movement, the double, Bel édifice et les pressentiments. Summers’s diction was exemplary throughout, and her almost simple - never simplistic! - directness was something refreshingly different from the qualities other singers have brought to the work, every bit as compelling. Each instrumentalist had an opportunity to shine. Particular instances I noticed were the fine viola playing of Ori Kam in the fourth movement, the stereo pointillism of tuned percussion in Bourreaux de solitude, and, in the penultimate movement, the third commentaire on that poem, the counterpoint of underpinning percussion, tuned and untuned, with the ravishing beauty of the punctuated arabesques of Guy Eshed’s flute solo, already looking forward to …explosante-fixe…. The seventh movement had proved Webernesque in its concision and expressive quality, whilst the final double was perhaps the most seductive of all, once again in Eshed’s solo, but also in the mesmerising closing bars. It is a tribute to the performers that one could only wonder at why many listeners initially found this music so ‘difficult’.