Saturday, 3 July 2010

Pierre Boulez at the Aldeburgh Festival

Pierre Boulez/ Ensemble Intercontemporain
Saturday, 26th June 2010

*Evening Performance*

Varèse - Octandre
Ligeti - Chamber Concerto
Elliott Carter - What are Years? (world premiere)
Pierre Boulez - Dérive 2

Ensemble Intercontemporain, cond. Pierre Boulez
Claire Booth - soprano (Carter only)

*Late Concert*

Pierre Boulez - Dialogue de l’ombre double
Pierre Boulez - Anthèmes II

Jérôme Comte - clarinet
Jeanne-Marie Conquer - violin

“The most elegant way of solving the opera problem would be to blow up the opera houses.” "All art of the past must be destroyed." It is with controversial statements such as these that Pierre Boulez will forever be associated – for some. But, as should be obvious to anyone who shares a more than cursory acquaintance with the facts of the case, a portrayal of the man that is merely based on such snippets just will not do. For instance, let’s take the case of his more recent compositional output. In a 1993 interview with Andy Carvin, Boulez outlines the notion that his late compositions form a part of the same intricate ur-text – though this implies more a microscopic, densely-detailed focussing in and absorption with a particular set of materials, than a mystically grand, over-reaching ‘great project’. "My recent music is much like a family tree - one tree spawns many other trees, and so on. Dérive I is from Repons, mostly music I left out, so I derived it from the piece, hence the name. Dérive II is based off of studies I did for Repons. Dérive III is also like that. Repons itself was my response to Poesies pour pouvoir, which I had written over twenty years earlier. As long as material from another piece is not used fully, I like to expand on it until it is exhausted. This is why they are all works-in-progress."

In relation to this, one might recall words written thirty years earlier, in ‘Sonate, Que Me Veux-Tu?’: "Why compose works that have to be re-created every time they are performed? Because definitive, once-and-for-all developments seem no longer appropriate to musical thought as it is today, or to the actual state that we have reached in the evolution of musical technique, which is increasingly concerned with the investigation of a relative world, a permanent 'discovering' rather like the state of 'permanent revolution'." The late works might therefore be seen, at least in part, as a practical enactment of such theoretical concerns: there is no one big discovery, but a continual working off tiny fragments, both the ghosts of past form and texture, and the novelties of radical new material, created in the work of the Second Viennese School and Darmstadt.

Thus, despite the big, controversial statements, made in the 60s, which always seem to be brought up as a stick to beat Boulez with (irrespective, perhaps, of the actual merits of his music (and irrespective, also, of the precise content of those statements), what we have here is a complex and intensive investigation of *musical* possibilities, rather than a big, broad-brush, slap-dash, shock-value modernist act of terrorism.

Given this, it should surprise no-one that Boulez’s appearance at the 2010 Aldeburgh Festival appears far less controversial today than it might have done as recently as twenty years ago; now in his eighties, Boulez has managed to largely shed his reputation as enfant-terrible and agent-provocateur; he is probably even more renowned as a conductor than as a composer, and his works can now be taken on their own merits. Thus, the programme he performed, along with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, needed make no concessions to conventional tastes: this was a firmly modernist selection (though Varèse’s ‘Octandre’ (1923), which opened proceedings, is hardly a new piece), containing, alongside the aforementioned Varèse, Ligeti’s ‘Chamber Concerto’, an Elliott Carter premiere, and one of Boulez’s own more recent works (albeit one which, though it only reached completed form in 2006, was begun in 1988).

The Varèse and Ligeti pieces, with which the concert began, were slightly marred by an occasional sense of strain from individual players, the timing or pitch sometimes being fractionally off – especially during the fiendish, mechanically repetitive figures in the outer movements of the Ligeti. But Varèse’s utterly unique style – those simultaneous high, whistle-frequency piccolo shrieks and bottom-end trombone growls, the exquisitely constructed dissonant sharpness and timbral contrast, the ghost of fanfares, moulded through a haze –nonetheless came through very well, as did Ligeti’s almost foot-tapping, moto perpetuo, jazzy rhythms, sliding strings, and gently swaying, organ-centred drones. The Carter piece (can this man really be 102 years old?), a short cycle of Marianne Moore settings, was perhaps more conventionally structured than is normal for him – at least, in terms of texture; there was a fairly straightforward contrast between ensemble blocks and the soprano’s solo line, rather than a multiplying web of individual interactions and dramas within that ensemble, but there were some satisfying moments, such as the second movement, during which the chamber group was reduced to just cello and harp (playing some particular striking fast, high figures, right at the top range of the instrument), and a lovely final exchange in the last movement, in which a whole succession of motifs seemed to be triggered by a throw-away vibraphone phrase.

The real meat of the concert, though, came with the second half, during which just one work was performed: Boulez’s own Dérive II, one of his more recent pieces (it was completed only a few years ago), during which a constant stream of material is derived from harmonic material unfolded at the very start; this material is then expanded and expounded upon for the next hour or so. Though the sense of continuous, onward flow (there are very few moments to catch the breath), might seem to point to certain affinities with improvisation, the constant, back-and-forth references to previously-played material, the intricacy in which motifs evolve, seemingly disappearing into material which they have generated, only to return in their original form once again – this indicates a much tighter organisational logic than that allowed by improvisation. Nonetheless, perhaps the *listener* in some way has to work in an improvisational manner, to adapt to the speed with which ideas unfold, and to develop particular strategies for listening that take account both of the interaction between particular soloists and sub-groups in the ensemble, and the flow of the music as a whole, emerging from the ensemble as a whole.

Metaphorically speaking, the piece might be likened to interlacing tracery; vines, weeds wound round each-other; entwining patterns, the fantastic complexity of calligraphy. Boulez seems obsessed by relay figures, passed round from musician to musician, as well as by dividing the ensemble into mini-ensembles, united by their particular sonorities: droning, oboe-led woodwinds (reminiscent of ‘Rituel In Memoriam Bruno Maderna’), piano, vibraphone and percussion, with their metallic, chiming, gamelan-quality, and smoother, lusher strings (once more evoking memories of an earlier Boulez work – this time, the ‘Livre Pour Cordes’). In addition, the cello, sometimes lyrical, sometimes ferociously active, often seemed to be favoured as a solo instrument (though more in the sense that the material it played was independent, distinct from any particular group that was playing at the same time, than in any ‘soloistic’, concerto-like sense). There was much to savour here, both colouristically and harmonically: were it not for the near-information-overload of this virtually pause-less piece, one might be tempted to place it quite firmly within a tradition of sensuous, richly-textured French music that stretches from Debussy to Dutilleux, and even to the Spectralists. And Messiaen, Boulez’s teacher, and perhaps the ultimate exponent of this trend (so much so that he could veer towards the Hollwyood-esque; though this in no way counterbalanced his clanging, stridently percussive sensibility), seemed to crop up a few times, particularly in some melodic material for bassoon that appear about two-thirds of the way in.

One came away with the impression that ‘Dérive II’ basically says, ‘if you can’t be bothered to immediately give this music your full attention, you’ll become hopelessly lost’; in absolutely no way could this be construed as ‘background’ or ‘programme’ music, and the avoidance of melodrama, of the ‘grand gesture’ might be seen as a fundamentally anti-Romantic element. If there is any excess here, it comes through the rigorous attention to detail, through the fastidious working-through of material, rather than through conceptual over-reaching, through self-inflated, egotistical folly. And the audience on this occasion seemed to realize this, to be willing to lend their concentration to the piece; there was great applause as Boulez, who, appearing somewhat frail, supported himself by holding onto a harp, stepped down from the podium – an ovation that seemed more than merely token.

Nit-picking, one might perhaps question how much Boulez’s conducting actually influenced the performers in his own piece – so complex were the scores in front of them that they could only dart quick glances up to the front of the stage, making it unlikely that they were really responding to most of his signals. I suspect that much of the work in this regard was done in rehearsals – Boulez drilling the Ensemble, instilling in them a sense of the ebb and flow of his own piece, and remaining on stage as a reference point perhaps as much for the audience as for the players. And, to be sure, it added something to the sense of occasion to see the octogenarian up there conducting, his back to the audience, hands moving out to the side in quick, neat, precise motions that suggested he was totally in control of what was happening.

This was not the end of things, however; a portion of the audience, and Boulez himself, proceeded from the main concert hall over to the smaller, but perhaps even more attractive space of the Britten Studio: another high-ceilinged room, this time with more steeply-tiered seats (somewhat like the arrangement in a cinema), and no ‘stage’ as such – simply a large floor-space in the front of the room (which seemed even larger for this particular performance, as the works to be played were for solo instrumentalist). ‘Dialogue de l’ombre double’ made the most of the space’s theatrical possibilities; as the lights dimmed, the solo clarinettist (Jérôme Comte) almost sidled in through the side-door, and, during the piece, he made his way round six music-stands, where, as well as playing the score, he triggered electronic material via foot-pedals (this material consisting mostly of untreated fragments of the solo lines which he was playing live – reminiscences and premonitions of what had come before and what was to come), to create the ‘double shadow’ of the title. This is one of Boulez’ most immediately accessible pieces, with plenty of returning melodic material and much use of ascending and descending trills, and Comte gave a seamless and expert performance. Hearing the ‘dialogue’ on CD is one thing, but there was something very special about hearing in performance the contrast between the live, acoustic material, and the electronic playback, as well as the way that they merge, overlap, engage each-other in a kind of slow, teasing dance.

If one was basing one’s judgements simply on conceptual grounds, ‘Anthèmes’ (a piece which Boulez has subsequently re-worked for a large ensemble), might have conjured up associations with the solo violin repertoire. However, in actual fact, it lacks not only the virtuosic extravagance of Paganini, the composer most associated with such work, but the sense of starkness and unadorned emotionalism of, let’s say, Ysaye; instead, it’s often rather pretty (though by no means inanely so), the same melodic material returning again and again to create a sense of contemplative near-stasis that is, nonetheless, belied by the flowing quality of the music. Lacking the dialogic complexities of shadowing and echo present in ‘Dialogue de l’ombre’, the solo voice here seems to be *enhanced* rather than fundamentally questioned, or engaged in conversation, by the electronics: one particular figure is made to sound as if it’s being played by cross between a string section and a not-quite human choir, via the afterglow of delay effects, and the eerie breath-sound of the bow slowly sliding up the string becomes almost unnerving; while the most noticeable rhythmic effect occurs during the passages of scampering pizzicato, their entries and echoes staggered by electronic delay. In itself, though, ‘Anthèmes’ was almost as theatrical as ‘Dialogue de l’ombre’: there was something inherently dramatic about the spectacle of one person in the spotlight, triggering powerful echoes all round the auditorium, simultaneously *in* control (so acquainted with the piece that it could be played from memory) and *unable to* control the electronic shadings and imitations.

In sum, this single evening of works and performances by Boulez was as much of a success as could have been hoped, and might be construed as something of a triumph. It’s certainly a reminder of the sometimes overlooked beauties and complexities of his own compositions, as well as of his status as a titan of the modern music scene. And while one might question the way that the classical world appoints its superstars and sticks with them to the point of adulation (towards the end, Stockhausen seemed to be able to put into practice any crazy idea/whim he wanted to), one could hardly begrudge Boulez his considerable achievements over the years. This was a great coup for the Aldeburgh Festival, and a great experience for those fortunate enough to have witnessed it.

No comments: