Thursday 2 April 2015

Berlin Festtage (3) - Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim, et al., Boulez, 29 March 2015


Le Visage nuptial
Anthèmes 2
Notations I, III, IV, VII, II (piano and orchestral versions)

Mojca Erdmann (soprano)
Anna Lapkovskaja (mezzo-soprano)
Ladies of the MDR Choir and NDR Choir (chorus masters: James Wood and Bernhard Epstein)
Michael Barenboim (violin)
Carlo Laurenzi and Jérémie Henriot (sound and live electronics, developed and realised at IRCAM)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (piano, conductor)

Boulez’s Le Visage nuptial remains a rare feast in every sense. It can certainly rarely have received a more ravishing performance, even when conducted by the composer. Mojca Edrmann, Anna Lapkovskaja, and the ladies of the MDR and NDR choruses, under Daniel Barenboim gave a first-class account, which must surely have won new converts both to work and composer. There can be few more inviting examples of Boulez’s Klee-inspired heterophony, geometrical (yet fantastical) surrounding of an ‘orginal’ line with others, even this relatively early work, revisions notwithstanding, paving the way for later masterpieces such as sur Incises. Perhaps the opening of the first movement, ‘Conduite’, acts as a primer in miniature for such method; so, at least, did it seem here, following the opening orchestral éclat, and the entry of ecstatic female solo voices, Erdmann very much the daring high soprano, Lapkovskaia’s rich mezzo often suggestive of a true(r) contralto. Shimmering strings after René Char’s words, ‘O ma Fourche, ma Soif anxieuse’ inevitably suggested the (post-)coital. Not the least aspect of this work is Boulez’s remarkably insightful exploration of female sexuality. Brief flowering of Messiaenesque rhythm in the final stanza both nodded to and expressed distance from Boulez’s teacher. Post-Debussyan languor was the order of the day in the beautifully-ordered – how could it be otherwise?! – after-glow of ‘Gravité’. Barenboim’s shaping and balancing was spot on throughout, the chorus almost sounding as if a (pre-)electronic halo for solo voices, offering a presentiment of Anthèmes 2, following the interval. Messiaen again sprang to mind, again distanced, in the choral writing of the central ‘Le Visage nuptial’ itself. But soon, Bergian intensity – partly a matter of the composer’s revisions, partly something that was always there, even whilst he doubted late Berg’s taste for ‘reconciliation’, partly a matter of the particular orchestra and conductor – supplemented and questioned that. Controlled frenzy from the superlative percussion, and the rest of the orchestra, made for a truly thrilling ride, the sweetness of the Staatskapelle Berlin violins not the least of these heavenly, yet earthly, delights. After Parsifal the night before, it was as if Kundry had truly returned – and turned the tables. The subsiding of the movement prior to its final ecstatic burst was, again, expertly shaped by Barenboim. ‘Evadné’ offered psalmodic choral chanting as response, with the final ‘Post-Scriptum’ framing the narrative, such as it is, very nicely with the return of the excellent soloists. The fragility of the close once again proved suggestive in every sense.

The Philharmonie proved in many ways a splendid venue for Anthèmes 2, the live electronic shadowing of Michael Barenboim’s violin (expertly provided by Carlo Laurenzi and Jérémie Henriot) a showcase for a crucial aspect of Boulez’s later style. The kinship between earlier celestial choir and this proved striking, although Mephistophelian sniping (Liszt’s shadow?) was not to be denied either. Sweet post-Messiaenesque lines enhanced and were enhanced by occasional nods to an older, almost viol-like string tradition. This was a performance of which Barenboim fils could justly be proud – infinitely superior to the sorry state of Gidon Kremer’s violin technique three nights later (more on that in a subsequent review).

Barenboim père returned to the podium, with piano, for Notations. First, he offered a spoken introduction to the pieces (with piano and orchestral examples), the idea of Veränderung rightly to the fore. (Again, I thought of Liszt, still more of Wagner.) Each piano version preceded its orchestral child. If the piano versions were not always the most polished, and would in themselves be superseded by Michael Wenderberg’s superlative performances the following night, they did what they were supposed to, in spiritedly showing whence the orchestral versions had originated. Berg again came to mind in III (Très modéré); indeed, it was a (putative) brand of Klangfarbenmelodie related to him, perhaps, rather than to Schoenberg and Webern, that seemed the hallmark of that intriguing performance. There was, moreover, more than a soupçon of Debussyan awakening, in all its rich ambiguity. The Seventh, marked ‘Hiératique’, proved on a different scale in every sense to its predecessors, almost musico-dramatic in a Wagnerian and/or Mahlerian sense. Air from Debussy’s and Bartók’s planets vied with that of more Germanic ‘tradition’. For Boulez’s later serialism, this seemed an equivalent to Schoenberg’s Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene. As usual, the closing (for now) Second Notation offered a riotous conclusion – to an immaculately planned concert.