Chicago Symphony/Boulez in New York – 2 [Susan Graham]

Quatre dédicaces [New York premiere]
Les nuits d’été
Petrushka [1911 version]

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 26 February, 2008
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Pierre BoulezQuatre dédicaces, a title chosen by Pierre Boulez, is a group of four orchestral miniatures by Luciano Berio – ‘Fanfara’, ‘Entrata’, ‘Festum’ and ‘Encore’. While each piece was originally written for a specific occasion, according to the composer’s widow it had been his plan “to issue them as a ‘small album’, thus making them available for concert programming. This project failed to materialize during Berio’s life, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performances mark the first time the four pieces have been performed together.”

Three of the four works were related to large-scale dramatic works: Fanfara, not surprisingly relying mainly on the brass, was eventually integrated into “Un re in ascolto”. Entrata, a virtual showcase for the percussion section, and Encore became part of “La vera storia”. Combined with Festum, which reminds faintly of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin at times, this ‘suite’ of about twelve minutes in length, made a strong case for its becoming a regular part of the repertoire.

Susan Graham. Photograph: Berlioz’s “Les nuits d’été” similarly was not initially planned as a set, but coincidentally became the first in the genre of the orchestral song-cycle. Although written for different voices, it is often performed by one singer. Susan Graham could not have been better chosen, as she managed to perfectly evoke both the sensual aspects of the inner movements, as well as the playfulness of ‘L’ile inconnue’. From hushed whispers and an expressive mezza voce to powerful outbursts, her voice beguiled with beauty, expressiveness and great musical intelligence.

Amazingly for a man of almost 83 years of age – he was born on 26 March 1925 – Pierre Boulez seemed at his most energetic at the end of his second concert in two days. He never has been a physically demonstrative conductor and tends to stay very close to the letter of the score, which has been taken as detachment. However, when he takes on a work such as Petrushka, in its original 1911 version, the amazing clarity and deep analytical understanding he brings to this music illuminate it in a powerfully absorbing way. Stripped of interpretative excesses, the score seemed cleansed, polished, and gripping in its narrative and inevitability. The orchestra’s easy virtuosity was a pleasure in itself, not least the solos of flutist Mathieu Dufour and pianist Mary Sauer, and also trumpeter Christopher Martin: Adolph ‘Bud’ Herseth need not worry in his retirement.

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