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Pierre Boulez
27 Jul 2015

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Pierre Boulez


Yet I cannot help but wish that someone had shown the imagination and necessary determination to programme Boulez’s electronic masterpiece, Répons: for once, surely a work that might have been revealed to good advantage in the Royal Albert Hall. For that, one alas — as so often — has not only to go elsewhere, but abroad: be it to Paris, Amsterdam, Salzburg… (I have opted for Salzburg next month, and look forward to the Ensemble Intercontemporain under Matthias Pintscher revealing the work in the flesh to me for the first time.)

Anyway, missed opportunities aside — by the way, how about some Stockhausen? I’ve never heard a better-suited ‘RAH work’ than Cosmic Pulses — we heard a well-, often very well-performed Proms Matinée at Cadogan Hall, with no shortage of music that was either new to the country or new to the world. First up were three of Johannes Schöllhorn’s arrangements for ensemble of Notations (the piano originals, not Boulez’s extraordinary orchestral expansions). The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Franck Ollu sounded slightly unfocused to start with, but Notation X had a very keen rhythmic sense. La Treizième was a nice surprise: one bar from each of the twelve added together, to form another, intriguingly unified twelve-bar piece. It actually put me a little in mind of the revisiting of earlier waltzes in Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, though perhaps I am just being a little sentimental there.I liked Schöllhorn’s sous-bois very much when I heard it at the Wigmore Hall last year; we need to hear more of him in this country. A Proms performance of a larger-scale work would be greatly appreciated another season.

Shiori Usui’s Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. will surely face little competition for the foreseeable future in the world of nomenclature. We learned from a brief conversation between the composer and Tom Service that the piece is named after an infectious fungus which works its negative magic upon ants. (Whilst I remember, the printed programmes for the Saturday Matinées are, quite simply, a disgrace: not a single word on either the works or the non-Boulez composers. Can something equivalent to the evening concerts, or at least something better than that not be managed?) In five very short movements — ‘Camponotus leonarci’, ‘Spores’, ‘Pathology’, ‘The Grip’, and ‘Hyphae’ — we heard a considerable array of ensemble colour, very different in each case. There was perhaps a sense of Boulezian éclat, albeit more overtly, or at least conventionally, thematic, and also sometimes more tonal in language. It was elevating to see one newspaper critic rise from his seat and leave after that performance; it will be interesting to see whether his review covers the rest of the concert.

Betsy Jolas is but a year younger than Boulez. We seem to hear her music very little in this country; the United Kingdom premiere of Wanderlied was therefore especially welcome. Wanderlied was inspired by the idea of an old woman (the cello) travelling from town to town as storyteller, the tile borrowed from a 1943 poem by Jolas’s father. Crowds gather around the woman and comment, but two people in the crowd do not like her, yet continue to follow. What emerged was a long-breathed, humorous piece, assure both of craft and emotional expression, timbre not surprisingly an important connecting force between the two, insofar — a big ‘insofar’ — as they may be separated. I thought of it as, in a way, a song without words, or perhaps better a cantata without words. Jolas looked, by the way, almost incredibly sprightly on stage, so we have every reason to hear a good deal more from her, programming permitting.

I wish I could be so enthusiastic, or indeed at all enthusiastic, about Joanna Lee’s Hammer of Solitude. The idea fits, clearly a reference to Le Marteau sans maître — and the participation of Hilary Summers fitted too. Summers proved her usual self, that most individual of voices as communicative with words and notes as one could ask for. Alas, the three movements — ‘The hammer alone in the house’, ‘A presentiment’, and ‘A suicide’ — seem strangely childish, which is not to say childlike, in construction and expression. Word-painting is obsessive, yet basic, almost as if following a guide in a compositional exercise. The (very) sub-Berberian noises at the opening hint at a greater ambition, which yet remains unrealised. The final line: ‘Release complete, relief’. Quite.

Finally, Dérive 2. It is the Boulez work I still find the most difficult to come to grips with; I cannot claim to ‘understand’ it and indeed find it almost disconcertingly ‘pleasant’ in its progress. Boulez’s constructivism, albeit a flowing constructivism, came across clearly and, crucially, with structural as well as expressive meaning. The ghost of Messiaen seemed intriguingly to hover, or rather to fly, at times, not least in some of those gloriously splashy piano chords. The ‘lead’ taken by different instruments at different times was, perhaps, more than usually apparent, suggesting almost an updated sinfonia concertante, whereas, for instance, Daniel Barenboim’s performances (seehere and here; number three will come in Salzburg next month) have emerged, at least to my ears, as more orchestrally conceived. As is the way with even half-decent performances of such music, I noticed things I had never heard before. Something that especially struck me on this occasion was the timbral similarity — surely testament to Boulez’s work as conductor — to a passage in The Rite of Spring. I shall have to look at the scores to find where and when, or perhaps I shall never re-discover what my ears were telling me on that occasion. Such is a good part of the mystery and the magic of live performance.

Mark Berry

Programme and performers:

Boulez, arr. Johannes Schöllhorn — Notations II, XI, X (1945, arr. 2011, United Kingdom premiere); Schöllhorn — La Treizième (2011, United Kingdom premiere); Shiori Usui — Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. (2015, world premiere); Betsy Jolas — Wanderlied (2003, United Kingdom premiere); Joanna Lee — Hammer of Solitude (2015, BBC commission, world premiere); Boulez — Dérive 2 (1988-2006, rev.2009).

Ulrich Heinen (cello)/Hilary Summers (contralto)/Birmingham Contemporary Music Group /Franck Ollu (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, Saturday 25 July 2015.

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