Saturday, 11 March 2017

‘Music for the thinking ear’: the opening concert of the Pierre Boulez Saal, 5 March 2017

© Volker Kreidler

Boulez – Initiale
Schubert – Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, D 965
Mozart – Piano Quartet in E-flat major, KV 493
Berg – Chamber Concerto
Widmann – Fantasie, for solo clarinet
Boulez – sur Incises

Anna Prohaska (soprano)
Michael Barenboim (violin)
Yulia Deyneka (viola)
Kian Soltani (cello)
Jörg Widmann (clarinet)
Karim Said (piano)
Boulez Ensemble
Daniel Barenboim (piano, conductor)

‘Musik für das denkende Ohr’ is the slogan for Berlin’s new Pierre Boulez Saal, which opened its doors to the public on Saturday 4 March. Why a new hall? The city’s Philharmonie (‘Karajan’s Circus’, or ‘Zirkus Karajani’, as West Berliners dubbed it) remains a monument to architectural, acoustic, and indeed performative modernism. There are no bad seats, whether visually or acoustically; the surrounding of the orchestra, or other performers, by the audience offers quite a different, ‘in the round’ experience from many more ‘traditional’ halls, even the most blessed acoustically, such as Vienna’s Musikverein and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, let alone the miserable examples with which London has been cursed.  Nevertheless, although Hans Scharoun’s Berlin hall has a smaller, chamber music hall attached, Berlin has had nothing like this. Frank Gehry’s oval design – no stage, merely a centre, again ‘in the round’ – genuinely seems to open up, in the spirit of Boulez’s long-held desire for a flexible ‘salle modulable’, the possibility of the ‘thinking ear’: to engage, to reflect, to make itself part of the performance. The greatest distance there can be between the conductor and the most distant member of the audience (682 seats in total) is but fourteen metres. There is intimacy, then, but the intimacy, it is hoped of collaborative endeavour.

The conceptual collaboration between Gehry, Daniel Barenboim, and acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota stands very much in the spirit of the artistic collaboration, spanning more than half a century, between Barenboim and Boulez. They performed together for the first time in Berlin, with the Philharmonic, in Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto, and Barenboim has long proved one of the most ardent champions of his friend’s music. Whilst Boulez’s death continues to be lamented, the conscience of New Music seems almost to be reborn here. In programming philosophy, we see echt-Boulezian selections, connections made. Barenboim’s new ‘Boulez Ensemble’, at least as modulable as the hall, made up of musicians from his Staatskapelle Berlin and West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, both of which Boulez conducted, will present concerts with combinations of contemporary music, Classical music, and classically modernist music – just as Boulez would insist that musicians auditioning for his Ensemble Intercontemporain play one Classical piece, not just contemporary music. The hall will also, most important of all, offer a home to the young musician-students of the Barenboim-Said Akademie, whose first cohort, thirty-seven of them, enrolled last autumn.
© Volker Kreidler
There will be much more to say about the hall itself; much will already have been said by others. I should like to concentrate now on the opening concert itself. It was given twice, the Saturday evening concert in the presence of a host of dignitaries, the German President included; I went the following morning. It may have been a lengthy occasion by the standards of the typical, one might say formulaic, concert; it did not feel as if it were. There is no reason why every concert should last for about two hours with an interval; every opera does not. If a performance of, say, the Diabelli Variations or the Missa solemnis is enough in itself, then there is no reason to add to it. Nor is there any reason to fret about a concert as rich, in very Boulezian terms, in programming possibility as this. Split into three parts, with two intervals, repertoire stretching from Mozart to Jörg Widmann, this encouraged, even did its part to create, that very ‘thinking ear’ of which we had previously been informed: to think and to listen.  

A new hall needs a fanfare. This one had Boulez’s 1987 Initiale, for seven brass instruments (two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, and tuba). The musicians encircled us, or rather played to us, Gabrieli-like, from the balcony, conducted (although I could not see him from where I was seated) by Barenboim. Clarity and warmth combined in near-ideal proportions, both in work and in performance. The experience of Répons seemed to offer musical as well as spatial inspiration – albeit now somewhat miniaturised. Five minutes of music offered an extraordinary expressive range, almost as if a symphonic poem and its narrative, wordless or otherwise, were being distilled – which, in a sense, is just what was happening.  It is not for nothing that ‘form’, understood as something more dynamic than ‘structure’, is contained within the word ‘performance’.

Schubert is to feature strongly in the Boulez Saal’s programming. A Winterreise with Christian Gerhaher, Barenboim at the piano, will launch a cycle of the complete Lieder over several years; Barenboim will also play the complete piano sonatas and conduct the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in the complete the symphonies. Here, we heard Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, with Anna Prohaska and Jörg Widmann, neatly also offering connections both to Widmann’s own clarinet Fantasie in the third section of the concert and to subsequent Widmann contributions to the season. This was true chamber music, perhaps especially between the two ‘soloists’, Barenboim not exactly reticent but far from dominant. The song opens: ‘When I stand on the highest rock, look down into the deep valley, and sing,’ that final ‘und singe’, quietly ecstatic here, enthusiastically echoed, as if across the valley, by the clarinet. The clarity of both lines – this was certainly not just a matter of the acoustic – did much to aid the Alpine impression: ‘atmosphere’, as Boulez would have been the first to point out, does not necessarily entail a blur. There was real sadness to be heard in the fourth and fifth stanzas, ‘In tiefem Gram verhehr ich mich…,’ until the ‘wunderbarer Macht’ (wondrous power) of song itself won through: a triumph as unmistakeable as it was unexaggerated. Playing to the gallery, figuratively or literally, is not a requirement for the hall of the thinking ear. And what post-Mozartian delight there was to be had in the concluding stanza, Spring arrived, receiving a fitting celebration in Prohaska’s coloratura.

Barenboim has been associated with the music of Mozart for as long as he has been a performing musician. For many of us, his piano concertos (whether with the English Chamber Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic) can hardly be bettered. It was fitting, then, to round off this first part of the concert with Mozart’s E-flat major Piano Quartet, with Michael Barenboim (violin), Yulia Deyneka (viola), and Kian Soltani (cello). I am yet to be entirely convinced by Barenboim senior’s new piano, much as I applaud the initiative; this was not the occasion on which I was to be won over. At times, although I do not wish to exaggerate, his uncontested leading role passed over into heavy-handedness. Nevertheless, at its best the first movement offered a fine balance between ebullience and tenderness, muscularity excluding neither relaxation nor, most importantly, dialogue. A typical Barenboim strength was to be heard in the dynamism of form I remarked upon in Initiale; Mozart’s music developed, motivically and harmonically, the one engendering the other. The balance between simplicity and complexity was well achieved in the slow movement, harmonic surprised registering with a delight that comes of knowing them well. The quiet dignity of the score, supported by extraordinary musical richness as soon as one exercised that ‘thinking ear’, was affirmed. Perhaps the finale was taken a little hastily: more Allegro than Allegretto? Such matters are, however, tricky in Mozart. It had, at any rate, the character of a finale, even if Barenboim sometimes proved a little too dominant again. The extroversion of the close was nothing less than delightful.
© Peter Adamik
The second section was given over to Berg’s Chamber Concerto. Barenboim conducted, his son played the violin solo, with Karim Said as solo pianist. (It was difficult not to think of this as a reinvention of the classic recording with Boulez, Barenboim, and Pinchas Zukerman.) Even with the intervention of an interval, one could hardly resist, even if one wished to do so, hearing Berg with Mozartian ears: protean, teeming with invention and expression. Boulez’s late recording with Mitusko Uchida and Christian Tetzlaff, cunningly, revealingly coupled with Mozart’s own Gran Partita, KV 361, came to mind. Thirteen instruments: how very un-Schoenbergian! The two soloists only combine in the final movement, the first being the pianist’s territory. Said offered clarity and sweep – just as Boulez, or Berg, might have wanted, or so one could fancy. Conductor, ensemble, and hall seemed to combine to afford a relationship between such clarity and complexity that came to the very heart of the work and its ever-shifting balances. Barenboim had its measure as few conductors, Boulez excepted, can ever have done, more than once playing up, or so it seemed, anticipations of Lulu 

Musical process was audibly at work throughout, just as much in the central Adagio as in that opening theme and variations. Michael Barenboim’s playing gave us tenderness and fury, sometimes well-nigh spontaneous. Still more so did that of the Boulez Ensemble, its climaxes fearsome, de profundis. Berg’s music emerged as it should: labyrinthine yet purposeful. The thread was never lost, not even for a split second. Furious, again, and still more febrile, the finale, piano and violin now combined, proved endless generative in its working through of musical material. Constructivism was shown to be in itself expressive, not somehow, sentimentally, opposed to expression. (Again, Boulez would surely have approved.) The re-entry of the orchestral ensemble seemed truly to set in motion the idea of a finale, endlessly developmental and yet unquestionable in its conclusion.

Widmann returned to give a spell-binding account of his early (1993) Fantasie for solo clarinet. Like the brass players for Initiale, he played down to us from the balcony, in a performance that incited, might even be thought of as incantatory.  Musical line was as clear, as direct, as anything we had heard before, extended techniques very much at its service rather than heard for the first time. The performance seemed almost to exemplify the wishes expressed both by Boulez and by Barenboim that new music (newish, in this case) be performed as if it were classical (and vice versa).

Meanwhile, three pianos, three sets of percussion instruments, and three harps awaited their respective performers (Karim Said, Denis Koshukhin, Michael Wendeberg; Lev Loftus, Pedro Torrejón González, Dominic Oelze; Aline Khouri, Susanne Kabaln, Stephen Fitzpatrick) for Boulez’s sur Incises. Like many of Boulez’s works, sur Incises has its seeds in an earlier work. Incises is a piano piece written (1994, revised 2001) for the Umberto Micheli Piano Competition (with which Maurizio Pollini, long an advocate of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata, had a strong association). Boulez’s initial intention, as he explained in an interview of 1998, was to:
… transform this piece into a longer one for Pollini and a group of instrumentalists, a kind of piano concerto although without reference to the traditional form. … Therefore, I produced a piece for three pianos, assuming that there already exists enough interesting literature for two pianos and ensembles, especially in the modern age – take for example Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. (In my opinion, everybody would have been reminded of this world if I had also written a piece for two pianos.) I have also considered the possibility of four pianos as this constellation is very attractive and provides a good balance.
Then, however, the siren call of Stravinsky and especially Les Noces suggested another path. As Boulez would remark more recently, in 2010, ‘This is the reason why I ended up with three pianos - incidentally three pianists are part of our ensemble [Intercontemporain].’ There were likewise three percussionists in the ensemble, and subsequently, the idea of adding three harps occurred to him, an idea rendered more attractive by his use of the instrument in Répons.

Boulez’s conception of serialism as ever-expanding, open-ended, was the overriding experience of this performance, conducted by Barenboim. The spatial element sounded more crucial than ever: we hear solo lines but also different groups: three groups, considered vertically, each of percussion, harp, and piano, and, considered horizontally, the three percussionists, the three harpists, and the three pianists. A startling aspect of those latter formations, all the more so in this telling acoustic, was to hear passages transferring spatially across, say, the three pianos, whilst remaining in a sense part of the one giant piano: played, as it were, by Barenboim, the pianist-conductor. I have long thought here of Boulez playing with something akin to a musical magical square, three rows and columns constantly shifting, and yet always adding up to the required total, even if we do not know what that should be: a magical extension of Webern, one might say.

Then there were the beguiling sonorities: the sumptuous quality of Boulez’s harmonies, fully captured here, harks back to and yet surely extends those of Debuusy. Kinetic, rhythmic energy brought every more strongly to mind Stravinsky and Bartók; indeed, that distancing from the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion notwithstanding, Bartók’s ghost seemed present in some of the piano writing, contagious, as it were, for the other instrumentalists. Barenboim seemed especially adept at signalling moments of transformation; one might think of Boulez’s own conception, adumbrated in his lectures to the Collège de France, of the musical ‘signal’. Rising clamour, typically Boulezian frenzy, would subside, at least partially, dialectically: confounding, yet making unanswerable sense. Form, we were again reminded, lives, acquires meaning, in performance, especially one so outstanding in quality as this. (What collaborative virtuosity was on show, and yet never for its own sake!) Nevertheless, however much we might have wished this universe to continue expanding forever, its material in perpetual proliferation, the conclusion once again proved decisive – at least until the next time. The ear had thought; the mind had listened.

(An edited version of this article appeared first in VAN Magazine, focusing less on the performances, more on the idea and reality of the hall and its programming. Please click here to read that. Apologies for the inconsistencies of formatting in this case: I seemed unable to get it to work, however much I tried...)