Friday 14 October 2011

Meaning and mystery

Boulez Weekend, Southbank Centre, London, 30 September – 2 October 2011

Pierre Boulez commented in a Guardian interview back in 1989 that ‘Revolutions are celebrated when they are no longer dangerous’. He was apparently referring to the French Revolution, around the time of its 200th anniversary, but it is clear that the comment strikes a chord – a tone-cluster of some kind, anyway – with his own trajectory as a composer and public figure. If you peruse the written history of Boulez’s career, a stark picture of aggression and iconoclasm emerges fast. He published reams of polemical texts in the 1940s and 1950s, including a fierce one entitled ‘Schoenberg is dead’ shortly after Schoenberg’s death, and another in which he insulted his teacher and mentor Olivier Messiaen (‘He does not compose, he juxtaposes’). He declared, at one point in the 1950s anyway, that any composer not using serial compositional technique was ‘USELESS’. And he led a huge number of the brightest of mid-century composers into IRCAM, a Parisian research basement. But, despite the forbidding nature of the literary Boulez, the sonic Boulez cuts an altogether different figure. And it was this figure, now the dust has settled on all the revolution, that received a standing ovation at the Royal Festival Hall at the beginning of the month.

It is, after all, not really because of his politics that Boulez deserves such warm praise as a weekend-long celebration of his music at the Southbank Centre. From the first notes of the solo clarinet piece Domaines on the Friday night to that mad final gesture of Pli selon pli on the Sunday, conducted by Boulez himself with the incredible soprano Barbara Hannigan, the emphasis was strongly on the music. And a picture emerged of a composer who clearly cares far more about the brilliant sonic effect of his music than about tiffs within the avant-garde or abstruse questions of technique. Every work we heard unfolded a strange, imagined shape in the air, leaving a trace which sat in some unknown relationship to logic. It is not, surely, possible to ‘follow’ a Boulez piece in the traditional manner – there’s the exposition, there’s the development, etc. – it just doesn’t work like that. But this is irrelevant to feeling the effect of a piece’s shape. Form in music is all but impossible to properly grasp in time, and it is once you realise this, and let the music wash over, that the amazing electric effect of Boulez is best felt. It’s also best felt live, unfortunately enough. Listening to something like Structures, Book II – played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (the festival’s Artistic Advisor) and Tamara Stefanovich as part of a marathon Sunday of piano performances by the two of them – is like hearing a huge prime number, each seemingly random digit gradually coalescing into a coherent, unique and impossibly rare form.

This weird sense of formal perfection is despite the considerable scope the Structures, Book II score leaves open to the performers. The two pianists must communicate through signals to negotiate a path through the pages. A certain aleatorism is a feature of many of Boulez’s works from the 1950s onwards (Structures II is from 1951-2): the Third Piano Sonata, played by Aimard, presents the performer with a sort of network of music including numerous bracketed ‘interpolations’. Each performance is hence necessarily completely unique. And both of the Domaines pieces (1961-8), for clarinet and for clarinet and orchestra, let the performers determine the order in which sections are played. Boulez and John Cage were frequent correspondents in the early 1950s, but there are substantial differences in their approaches to chance: for Cage, chance is artistic serendipity, but for Boulez, whose chance emerges from within huge structures, chance is more of a tactic for negotiating nature. Boulez picks a slow path through the forest, while Cage rapturously studies the tree.

The two Domaines pieces were both played on the Friday night by current students at the Royal Academy of Music: Rozenn Le Trionnaire played the solo piece, and Elaine Ruby played with the RAM’s Manson Ensemble, conducted meticulously by Susanna Mälikki. Mälikki and the ensemble then went on to play Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, a mesmerising work from the 1970s which features solemn, overlapping percussion parts underpinning insistent orchestral surges. The gentle and assured performances from all of the musicians were a reminder of the astonishing rise in standards of contemporary performance that Boulez’s time at the forefront of conducting has ushered in.

The Saturday concert was perhaps a more cerebral affair, featuring sound engineers from IRCAM to provide the electronics needed for violinist Clio Gould’s vivacious performance of Anthèmes 2, and the London Sinfonietta’s …explosante-fixe…, conducted by Peter Eötvös with Michael Cox on the solo flute part. The latter work is less a flute concerto, more a vast and weird magnification of a single flute, both by electronic means and through extraordinarily subtle orchestration. Though not among Boulez’s more visceral works, it is completely unique in the orchestral repertoire and a remarkable thing.

The highlight of this concert, however, was a short, unpublicised conversation featuring Boulez and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, which preceded the first half. Boulez spoke, as ever, with humility and humour about his work; quizzed by Aimard about the apparently prominent role of death in Pli selon pli, he replied that the ‘Tombeau’ which concludes the work has ‘More to do with poetry than with death itself’. But while the composer’s desire to stick to abstraction is fair enough, Pli – like any other lasting classical work – creates through all its colours and contexts the most incredibly intricate blank canvas, to be filled in with meaning and mystery by the listener.

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