Boulez Bartók

Four Orchestral Pieces, Op.12
Piano Concerto No.1
Concerto for Orchestra

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 April, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A few days after his 80th-birthday (on 26 March), Pierre Boulez remains with a spring in his step. It’s business as usual: to the extent that this particular choice of repertoire offered nothing new and, at best, stood still. Boulez, as the Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, has recorded all these Bartók pieces relatively recently in Chicago (for Deutsche Grammophon) and it was only in October last year that he was playing the Four Orchestral Pieces with the LSO (one of several London accounts of this music that Boulez has led over the last three decades). And when he brought the Vienna Philharmonic to the Royal Festival Hall not that long ago the evening also concluded with the Concerto for Orchestra.

There was much to admire in the CSO’s unperturbed virtuosity, its finite response to Boulez’s typical regard for clarity, blend and balance – save for occasionally overloud and piercing trumpets and trombones – yet there was also disengagement, a within-parameters response, if much expertise. For all the Orchestra’s shimmer and dexterity, there is more Impressionism and bloom in the first of the Pieces, more danger in the following ‘Scherzo’ and greater languor in the third (but that’s down to Boulez’s tempo); only the funeral march finale exposed nerves.

Daniel Barenboim always works hard as a pianist and this was a lively contribution from him, trills and keyboard logistics negotiated with determination. Neither he nor Boulez will want to be reminded that they recorded this work together way back in 1967. Here, balances and co-ordination were sometimes awry in the first movement; strangely – either because Barenboim was too loud or Boulez too accommodating of him – lots of woodwind detail was almost inaudible. It was all rather comfortable, too – certainly in the too-brightly-lit central processional – and comfortable is one thing this music isn’t.

In Concerto for Orchestra a lack of emotional identity was evident in the outer movements, however impressively exercised and clarified both were. The middle movements engaged more: a decorous and nimble ‘Game of the Couples’, a potent ‘Elegy’, and a surprisingly flexible ‘Intermezzo’ – to the extent that the cor anglais player seemed suspiciously out of sync in one section; Boulez played down this movement’s irony, which made the two trombonists’ raspberry-blowing seem gratuitous.

No encore – with the Vienna Phil, Boulez offered Debussy’s Fêtes (Nocturnes). It was tantalising to read that Boulez has recently conducted in Chicago pieces like Haydn’s ‘Drum Roll’ Symphony (interesting in a Boulezian context) and the Cello Concerto of Bernard Rands … more intriguing than Bartók being trotted out – again!

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