Chicago Symphony/Boulez in New York (2) – Boulez, Bartók & Stravinsky

Boulez
Livre pour cordes [1988 version]
Bartók
Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra
Stravinsky
The Firebird

Pierre-Laurent Aimard & Tamara Stefanovitch (pianos) and Cynthia Yeh & Vadim Karpinos (percussion)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez


Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 31 January, 2010
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Pierre BoulezThe 1988 version of Pierre Boulez’s Livre pour cordes (for string orchestra) is based on one of his earliest works, Livre pour quatuor (for string quartet), completed in the late 1940s and now withdrawn. Likewise, the earlier edition of Livre pour cordes – a complex elaboration of the quartet completed in 1968 – has been withdrawn in favor of this shorter single-movement version. The opening of the work is uncharacteristically reserved – there are no wide swings in dynamics, and Boulez puts a timbral emphasis on the low and middle range of the strings — and slowly unfolds into grander and more lyrical gestures yielding sonorities of extraordinary beauty and showcased the Chicago Symphony’s string sound – much less astringent and shrill than during the Solti era, and even warmer than at the end of Barenboim’s tenure as music director. For those familiar with the earlier withdrawn versions, both of which have been recorded commercially, the present version palpably documents Boulez’s transformation as a composer, building on the early foundation of the rhythmic rigors of his teacher Messiaen and the strict ‘twelve-tone’ technique refined by Webern into a master of complex, rich post-serial harmony, a broad palette of instrumental colors, and melismatic, almost vocal melodies.

Bartok’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra is similarly an elaboration on an earlier work – the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion – but the fruit of Bartók’s labor is not a radical rethinking so much as an orchestration (made at the suggestion of Bartók’s publisher, Ralph Hawkes of Boosey & Hawkes, in the hope of bringing the work to a broader audience) that adds color to the work’s harmonic and rhythmic impulses, which are largely the preserve of the soloists, here Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovitch playing with uncanny unity, and CSO percussionists Cynthia Yeh and Vadim Karpinos dispatching their daunting music – which emphasizes pitched percussion, particularly for xylophone and constantly pitch-shifting timpani – with jaw-dropping ease. There was plenty of momentum in the outer movements, and the inner one, which the program note characterized (rather misleadingly) as “dreamy and edgy”, took on a satisfyingly meditative mood.

The opening of Stravinsky’s The Firebird was both portentous and unexpectedly energetic, and set the stage for a performance in which every musical gesture, even the smallest, pushed the music forward, yet somehow avoided a frenetic mood. Stravinsky was still in the thrall of Rimsky-Korsakov and the Russian nationalist school, and Boulez did not shy away from the orchestration’s almost inexhaustible variety of colors – but always in the service and support of melody and dramatic characterization. The best-known sections – made familiar in the three suites – were crackling with excitement, enormous dynamics and uncannily clear balance. Even a few moments of dodgy playing during the most exposed horn melodies – the horn section as a whole showed remarkable ensemble playing – did little to detract from a virtuoso performance that was also a convincing argument that this ballet-score is far more effective as a symphonic poem.

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