Ensemble Intercontemporain/Boulez – Carter & Boulez

Two Thoughts About the Piano (Intermittences and Caténaires) [UK premiere]
Clarinet Concerto
Dérive II

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Alain Damiens (clarinet)

Ensemble Intercontemporain
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 11 December, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Elliott Carter (b. 11 Dec 1908)All credit to the Southbank Centre for arranging something for Elliott Carter’s 100th-birthday (and on the day itself). As he said himself (on a film shown before the concert): “… my music is being played a great deal more on radio in Europe than it has here (United States) – and therefore I suppose I have more friends in Europe than I have here.” Sadly that does seem to be case, for few orchestras in the States appear to have marked Carter’s 100th – the Boston Symphony and James Levine being an honourable exception. That Carter has composed some of the most engrossing music is surely undeniable; that he remains on the top of his game is as worth celebrating as is his reaching the milestone of being 100 years old.

Good to report that the Queen Elizabeth Hall was full and that the programme included written tributes to Carter from Daniel Barenboim, George Benjamin, Irvine Arditti and Pierre Boulez, the latter intensifying his relationship with Carter by conducting the concert and including a work of his own that is dedicated to his senior colleague (and Boulez is now close to being 84!).

Following the film – made recently at Carter’s New York home – the concert opened with Dialogues (2003), for piano and orchestra, written for Nicolas Hodges, music becoming increasing active and with much expressive capability. Pierre-Laurent Aimard then stayed on to play three works for solo piano. Matribute (written for James Levine in honour of his mother), music of contrasts, followed by the gritty Intermittences (for Peter Serkin) that peaks to fastidious flamboyance, something sustained by the free-flowing Caténaires (for Aimard), which he played separately at the opening concert of this year’s BBC Proms.

The Clarinet Concerto (1996) was written for Alain Damiens, the EIC and Boulez. At 18 minutes or so it is a substantial piece and carefully choreographed in that the soloist plays from different positions (ending up in the ‘traditional’ place), the orchestra being clearly differentiated by being seated in sectional groups, brass signalling the arrival of the movements, each one characteristic and with a real sense of culmination and coming-together.

Pierre BoulezThe performances thus far had been of the quality and commitment one would expect from these artists. There was no lessening of intent with Dérive II, a decidedly extensive statement in the Boulez catalogue, currently (definitively one suspects) standing at 45 minutes in length. It’s been a (typically) long gestation – Boulez began Dérive II for Carter’s 80th-birthday and has performed a half-the-length version from 2003. Sticking with the 2006 extension, Boulez and his dedicated and virtuoso players (eleven in number, piano, string trio, harp, two percussionists – on xylophone and marimba – clarinet (Damiens), horn, cor anglais and bassoon), the sheer energy and incident of Dérive II is exhilarating in itself even if one sometimes wonders just where it is heading.

Nevertheless as the piece progresses, an element of fantasy-like reflection cues invention and colourings that remind (possibly consciously) of Carter’s own music. If we have now gone somewhere unexpected (and very appealing) a real sense of structure (particularly with regard to recapitulation and coda) emerges, the burst of energy that cues the final pages perfectly judged to the return of the horn note (now augmented) that launched Dérive II, a transforming musical landscape and a journey that one wants to undergo again.

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