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Boulez and the LSO (III): Bartók, Rihm, Boulez, Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin); London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez. Tuesday, October 19th, 2004 (CC)


How heart-warming to see such a full hall for a challenging programme of lesser-known Bartók, some Wolfgang Rihm (who has never really hit popularity in the UK) and music by the Maitre sans Maitre himself.


The Four Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10/Sz51 (1912) is one of Bartók’s least well known scores. The question of why it is not heard more (in live performance at least) may be answered by the sheer size of orchestra it calls for. In Pierre Boulez it found a true friend. All caricatures of Boulez the die-hard modernist were dismissed by the lavish impressionist washes of the Preludio – Boulez can luxuriate along with the best of them. Only some lack of warmth in the upper strings found the LSO wanting in its response.


A Scherzo follows, raw in surface effect but with a definite underlying intensity. The piece’s kinship with the more outgoing parts of the ballet The Wooden Prince is obvious. A surprise, possibly, that the Intermezzo made the adjective ‘gallant’ spring to mind; no surprise that the Marcia funebre let in little light, with its heavy textures and wonderfully dead col legno strings.


Anne Sophie Mutter’s devotion to the music of our time is well known, and well documented on record. Rihm’s Gesungene Zeit (‘Time Chants’, 1991-2) was written for her, and she premiered the work in June 1992 with the Collegium Musicum under Paul Sacher. She was dressed as impressively as ever (in green – the ‘new black’, I am reliably informed). Scored for solo violin and small chamber orchestra, Gesungene Zeit needs a soloist and orchestra capable of the utmost concentration. Mutter was indeed spellbinding, her tone unutterably sweet, her long notes hypnotic, her cantabile magnificently sung. One could appreciate the melodic content here rather than hearing a succession of disjunct intervals (as in a good performance of the more lyrical of Webern’s music). Gesungene Zeit needs a violinist with a never-ending bow (this is a never-ending melody of the sort Birtwistle, in a different way, aspires to,) and in Mutter it had possibly its ideal interpreter. The orchestration, too, is hyper-subtle, underlining, commenting and melding with the solo. There are gestures of impatience from the orchestra, which have an articulatory function, but the overall impression is of heartfelt lyricism. And surely nobody today has the control Mutter displayed at the end as the line disappeared into the stratosphere.


Boulez wrote his Douze Notations in 1945; yet as always with this composer, the score continues to generate possibilities. The dates given are 1945; 1977-8; 1989, with the orchestration of No. 7 (the second we heard) completed in 1997. 1977-8 marks the ‘re-imagining’ process, less orchestration, more ‘composing out’ and it was an excellent idea here to present the piano versions (played by LSO’s Principal Keyboardist John Alley) next to the fleshed-out versions, and an instructive one.


For the first, fragmentary and registrally disjunct Notation, Alley made us recognise the beauty of Boulez’ simultaneities in a ‘pure’ state. Enter the orchestra, and the world became lusher, more sensual even, the whole writ large. The huge orchestra was used with consummate mastery. The next in line (Notation 7) found Alley using a hard touch. Boulez’ characteristic appoggiaturas and more prevalent single lines all made this feel that this was Boulez at his purest. That appoggiatura gesture became an instantly recognisable feature of the orchestra’s turn at this material, but edges were softened. There was more of a feel of a pulsating mass of a processional, out of which Romantically inclined gestures struggled to break free (seemingly encouraged to do so by Boulez the interpreter).


Differences again in the Fourth, where the almost jazz-syncopations of the piano original became far more violent (sfs abounded). This is almost Boulez’ Sacrificial Dance, it seems. Large sonorities tapering to single line characterized the third Notation. Any quasi-Romantic gestures became more obvious in the orchestra (maybe because of the associations massed strings carry?). Typical Boulez, a woodwind choir carried the pitch material in a sequence of vertical sonorities, as if to underline the coherence of it all.


Finally, a brief piano Notation 2 (glissandi, repeated notes with a Beethovenian inner life) gave way to its elemental, explosive and tremendously exciting orchestral garb, proving that even here, on home modernist turf, Boulez can play to an audience.


The LSO’s rapport with Boulez is amazing. An exchange of mutual respect, the results are astonishing.


Colin Clarke



Further Listening:


Bartók: (c/w Concerto for Orchestra). Chicago Symphony, Boulez. DG 437 826-2

Rihm: Mutter; Chicago Symphony/James Levine. DG 437 093-2

Boulez: Notations. Ensemble Intercontemporain. DG 455 833-2

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