Feature Review – Exquisite Labyrinth: The Music of Pierre Boulez [30 September-2 October 2011]

Written by: Andrew Morris

Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Friday-Sunday, September 30-October 2, 2011

Pierre Boulez. Photograph: Harald Hoffmann/DG

Pierre Boulez is now 86, but he’s still ruffling feathers. On a recent BBC Radio 4 discussion programme, one guest responded to a question about Boulez’s music with a tirade against the composer’s arrogant impenetrability, leaving pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard to gently defend the music of his friend and colleague. Aimard was on the radio to promote Exquisite Labyrinth, the Southbank Centre’s weekend-long festival of music by Boulez, culminating with what was rumoured to be the last time that the he would conduct his Pli selon Pli.

Of course, Boulez has done his best to make himself uniquely unlikeable: in his younger days he vigorously attacked any music he didn’t admire and dismissing anyone who didn’t adhere to his compositional ideas. Ironically, Boulez’s public image has diverged to such an extent that it seems as though there are two of him: one who has booked himself a place in the affections of audiences through his extensive conducting of Romantic and Twentieth-Century music; and the other, the composer of some of the most unremittingly cerebral and dense music of the last century, whose works are still a rarity in the concert hall even by comparison with his fellow soldiers of the mid-century avant-garde.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Graham Turner

Aimard’s aim with this weekend was to reassert the composer’s place in the contemporary canon and, presumably, to introduce a younger generation of listeners to Boulez’s other ‘day job’ now that his hegemony has faded.

The weekend’s first concert saw the Royal Academy of Music’s Manson Ensemble tackle works written by Boulez in the 1960s and 1970s. One of Boulez’s perennial obsessions has been the re-working and expansion of earlier scores. Notations (1945) is a famous example: twelve piano miniatures that he has been re-imagining for large orchestra. Domaines (1961-1968) similarly exists in two versions: one for solo clarinet, and one for clarinet with an ensemble of six instrumental groupings. The written score leaves the ordering of the material and the path chosen through it to the performer. In the solo version Clarinettist Rozenn Le Trionnaire worked her way between two circles of music stands, each illuminated by spotlighting as she reached them. Her performance was astounding; she managed the far-flung leaps between intervals with no impression of effort. One tiny moment encapsulated the delicacy of her playing: a mellow vibrato seamlessly becoming a quarter-tonal trill, a detail that Boulez-the-perfectionist would surely have delighted in.

In the augmented Domaines, the performers were placed in a circle around conductor Susanna Mälkki (who always looked the calm and unflappable centre of this particular storm) while clarinettist Elaine Ruby bridged the interjections from the instrumental groupings with extended solos. Passing material from the clarinet at the centre to the outlying instrumentalists did highlight the ways in which the clarinet’s sound could be impersonated by other instruments, but without any way of understanding what decisions the performers were taking. Both versions of Domaines felt like musical games to which the audience was not invited. This was especially problematic in the case of the version for ensemble, which stretched on and on with little musical variety.

Rituel in memorium Bruno Maderna (1974-5) is as one of Boulez’s most accessible pieces. The processes at work are in some ways typical of Boulez: non-metered rhythm; movement from disarray to unity; autonomous groupings of instruments spread around the stage. Here, though, Boulez signposts some of these elements in a way that makes their presence much more apparent. Each instrumental group is supported by a percussion player and the separate rhythmic planes on which they operate are clearly distinguished by the different instruments used. One exclusively uses gongs; one a wood-block; another a hand drum; another an Indian drum. The progress of the narrative is also clear. This ritualistic music is always supported by conflicting pulses, but it moves from a carefully constructed chaos to a grave unanimity, with Boulez producing strikingly Messiaenesque colours along the way. The lonely fade of the final strike of the gong came closer to provoking an emotional response than anything else in the evening’s programme.

There’s an undercurrent of feeling in much that has been written about Boulez that, as a composer, he’s improved with age. The word “mellowed” is applied to the music and certainly to the man: He no longer advocates blowing up the world’s opera houses, as he once infamously did, although it is conveniently forgotten that he also said they should be re-built. The few scores that have emerged in the last quarter of a century seem less aggressively concerned with process and more open to the joy of sound for its own sake. His 1998 score sur Incises is brought up again and again as the touchstone of this transformation; and the work that opened the London Sinfonietta’s Saturday-night programme, Anthèmes 2 (1997) for solo violin and electronics, pursues adventures in sound over the explorations of chance and numbers.

Clio Gould

Like the other work in the concert programme, Anthèmes 2’s origins are in the set of rules devised for the first version of …explosante-fixe… (1991-3), but the use of only one instrument clears away a lot of the dense texture of the orchestral works and allows a quite different window into Boulez’s ear for instrumental colour. Electronic distortions and harmonisations are triggered by the playing of the violinist (in this case a spectacular Clio Gould), with recorded excerpts producing spontaneous counterpoint. It’s exciting, but it’s also revealing for leaving one aspect of violin technique largely untapped: you won’t find long or slow bows, or much exploration of vibrato here. What seems to excite Boulez is shimmering and bubbling textures made up of many tiny points of sound, rather than sustained tone. A third Anthèmes is forthcoming, though Boulez prefers it not to be called a violin concerto.

What linked Anthèmes 2 with the expanded …explosante-fixe… for flutes and ensemble is the use of electronics. Before the performance began, Boulez joined Aimard for a short chat, in which the composer touched on his relationship with electronics. During the 1950s, the importance of electronic music was something of a sticking point between Boulez and colleagues. Stockhausen, Xenakis and Ligeti all produced entirely electronic works, some of which sound quite quaint today. Boulez’s interest in electronics only extended to augmenting acoustic performance, however. Boulez told Aimard that much of the electronic music of half-a-century ago merely produced loud effects and, as he put it, “spectacular is finished quite quickly.” As though to underscore Boulez’s suspicion …explosante-fixe… makes only fleeting use of electronics. When they appear, pitches are distinguished from the acoustic mêlée by their refreshing purity of tone. They are also heard in transfixing interludes between the piece’s sections, when the lights dim and the intensity of the work is cooled, for a short while at least. Again, there are complex structural games at work here, but it’s not difficult to grasp the ultimately calming effect of the three flutes (Michael Cox at the centre of events) on the raging ensemble (under Peter Eötvös’s direction) when this particular labyrinth is eventually solved.

In conversation with Aimard, Boulez spoke of returning to early compositions. “When you are young you have many ideas, but you don’t know how to exploit them.” Sunday’s programme began with a chance to hear these very earliest ideas in a sequence of three concerts which took in Boulez’s complete works for solo piano (well, almost) and finished with the fearsome barrage of the two-piano Structures II. The composer must surely have been thinking of Notations (1945) when speaking of youth. His frequent return to the pieces indicates that he values the material held within them, even if they belie his influences more readily than does almost any other early work.

Aimard prefaced the piano works with an introduction, pointing out their processes and placing them within Boulez’s evolution. Of Notations, he commented that perhaps Boulez’s style was not yet fully his own, and indeed echoes of Schoenberg, Debussy and Ravel were imparted in Aimard’s typically outstanding performance. Certainly, within the twelve miniatures, atmosphere was evoked more consciously than we’re perhaps used to hearing from the mature Boulez.

Tamara Stefanovich. Photograph: Frank Alexander Rümmele

All that seemed was largely swept away by Piano Sonata No.1. Aimard described the sonata as “Boulez’s opus one” and his explanation of the work hinted at Boulez’s music straying into more cerebral realms, a dialectic between improvisatory material and something more structured, and this process was relatively easy to follow. Aimard produced a performance of the utmost delicacy, full of sensual details amongst the more violent outbursts. He then spoke about the Second Piano Sonata, Boulez’s most-famous work for the instrument and an absolute pinnacle of intractable virtuosity. It was Aimard’s former pupil Tamara Stefanovich who took to what Aimard described as “a Himalaya for pianists.” Piano Sonata No.2 is Boulez’s most vicious assault on the forms of the past. Its four movements follow the pattern of a Beethoven sonata and it even has a fugue, but there the similarities end. 35 minutes of the densest piano-writing imaginable prove an exhausting listen, though the strange air of depressed calm in its final page turns away from the artillery attack of its previous forty-seven pages. Any successful performance of this monster is so far above the abilities of mere mortals that it’s effectively beyond criticism; seeing Stefanovich manage it while turning her own pages, though, was worth the price of admission alone.

After lunch, Aimard completed the cycle of piano sonatas with the published segments of the Third. Boulez wrote five movements, but expressed dissatisfaction with three of them and only allowed two to reach print. The movements performed demonstrated the roots of Boulez’s interest in the sustaining power of the piano, something his works return to again and again. With that pedal Boulez allows clusters of notes to be cleared, revealing more slender clusters at their centre; Aimard’s performance brought this to the fore. The two remaining works came from commissions. Incises, here in its expanded 2001 version, was composed for a piano competition in 1994 and represents another case of Boulez’s obsession with refining and expanding his material: the original piano piece had already served as the springboard for the creation of the 40-minute sur Incises for pianists, harpists and percussionists. Incises is more approachable than the earlier piano works because it is built on a more recognisable form of musical narrative; we can enjoy it as a furious toccata followed by reflection. The same is true of une page d’éphéméride, performed by Aimard, which was a submission for a volume of pieces intended to introduce young players to aspects of contemporary music. Aimard noted with a smile that that while this might have been intended for children, it was really only appropriate “for Mozarts.”

The solo piano music traversed, Aimard and Stefanovich returned for Boulez’s Structures, Book II. Book I is one of Boulez’s most rigid statements all elements of the score dictated by serial techniques. The feeling seemed to be that one book of Structures was enough, with Aimard commenting that while the First Book was an important landmark in music history, it perhaps wasn’t the best music “for a Sunday afternoon concert.” Structures, Book II is still a mightily formidable entity, even if Boulez allowed himself a freer hand in its construction than in that of its predecessor. Of its two parts, the most appealing is the second. For once, the game at play is visible to the audience, with the two pianists prompting the introduction of the other with a raised hand. At certain times this interaction seemed to falter and a few signals seemed to be missed, but it only added to the sense of jeopardy and theatricality. And then, in one of the most striking moments of any work heard during this day, Stefanovich’s part asked her to crash away at the bottom of the keyboard, producing a terrifying volume of bass clatter and leaving Aimard only to answer meekly with the work’s final flourish. This astounding moment of concentration was worth the impenetrable mass that preceded it.

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