Sunday 2 October 2011

Exquisite Labyrinth (1) - RAM Manson Ensemble/Mälkki

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Domaines (both versions)
Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna

Rozenne Le Trionnaire, Elaine Ruby (clarinets)
Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble
Susanna Mälkki (conductor)

The Southbank Centre’s Boulez weekend, Exquisite Labyrinth, opened promisingly with this concert from the conservatoire players of the RAM Manson Ensemble, if without the blazing assurance that crack professional groups such as the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Ensemble Modern, and the London Sinfonietta, would most likely have imparted to the music. (That, incidentally, or rather far from incidentally, is one of the many far-reaching legacies of Boulez as conductor from his Domaine musical days onwards: the extraordinary rise in standards of performance for new music.) Still, to have student performers tackling works such as Domaines and Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna at all, is a heartening reminder of how standards have risen at all levels.

Domaines was heard first, in both versions. In the solo version, Rozeen Le Trionnaire proved an excellent guide, as sure of purpose as one must be, in order to bring off a very difficult task indeed. For the soloist must here not only perform, but determine the order of performance, selecting both the placing of the score pages around the stage and one of the two possible ‘pathways’ offered by the passages upon each page: the ‘mobile form’ that was in some respects the composer’s answer to Cage, initiated in the Third Piano Sonata.

In the later version for clarinet and ensemble, Elaine Ruby proved a worthy successor. Indeed, so impressive was the continuity, I did not immediately realise that there had been a change of clarinettist. The visual drama here becomes if not stronger – for monodramas, as Boulez the conductor of Erwartung knows very well, is a searing experience – then perhaps more wide-ranging. (I am not quite sure that is the right word, but at the moment cannot think what is!) The ensemble is split into six groups, of varying size, ranging from the clarinettist, who remains mobile, to sextet. All of the players shone, but the duo of double bass and marimba perhaps especially so. Though electronics are not used, one sensed the foreshadowing of that world in some of the composer’s – and performers’ – timbres. The mirrored enhancement of mobile form was rendered visually and aurally apparent in the finely judged cooperation and mutual incitement from Ruby and Susanna Mälkki. There was a true sense of soloist and conductor sparking music off one another – the former chooses the order the first time around, the latter in the mirrored transformation – and of course off the ensemble too. Boulez may yet have to write an opera, but we were left in no doubt as to his stature as a dramatist.

Rituel is an extraordinary work, of course, another extension of ‘mobile form’, which manages both to sound dramatically spontaneous and predetermined as compositional processional. Perhaps that is not a bad way of considering the possibilities ‘controlled chance’ in Boulez’s æsthetic: it is an opening of doors for the composer as well as the performer. It was here that the RAM players sometimes sounded a little more than stretched: not that anything fell apart, Mälkki’s guiding hand being far too strong for that, more that the demands of keeping together could preclude fuller portrayal of the music’s expressive qualities. One can exaggerate the proximity to Messiaen, but at times it is there. (I was also put in mind of Boulez’s conducting in Munich for the Musica Viva concerts the mediæval Messe de Tournai as a dialogue between ancient and modern, which also took in works such as Bartók’s Cantata profana and Stravinsky’s The Flood: a concert available on Col Legno.) Oboe and percussion, however, were especially impressive throughout. If the music did not quite overwhelm as it might, perhaps it will do so next time, for these players certainly should tackle it again, until it becomes fully embedded in their musical bloodstream.