Ensemble Intercontemporain/Boulez – Messiaen & Boulez

Couleurs de la cité céleste
Sept Haïkaï
Sur Incises

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Ensemble Intercontemporain
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 December, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This first of two concerts by Ensemble Intercontemporain, rounding off the Southbank Centre’s year-long Messiaen retrospective, reunited the Paris-based new-music group with the conductor who was instrumental in its founding some 32 years ago. Each programme juxtaposes Pierre Boulez with the composers whose centenaries fall on successive days. Thus Elliott Carter features on 11 December and the first half of this concert brought radical (and chronologically adjacent) pieces from Olivier Messiaen.

Olivier MessiaenCouleurs de la cité céleste (1963) finds the latter at his most uncompromising – a notably ‘stripped down’ ensemble of clarinets, brass and percussion being heard alongside a piano part itself among the composer’s most refractory. Boulez directed a mesmeric first recording just over four decades ago with Domaine Musicale (the EIC’s ‘spiritual’ predecessor), and while his present-day conception lacks a little in uninhibited dynamism, the clarity and precision across what might easily lapse into undifferentiated austerity could not be gainsaid; with the chorale-like melody which latterly comes to the fore pointing to the monumental quality that became paramount in Messiaen’s ensuing works. Special praise to Sébastian Vichard for his detailed and yet never inhibited handling of the piano part: he is destined to follow in an illustrious lineage of pianists who have risen to prominence via the EIC.

The composer himself considered Couleurs his most specific as regards the relationship between timbre and colour, but – to these ears at least – it is Sept Haïkaï (1962) that embodies this aspect the more potently. Here the ensemble is expanded to include trumpet, trombone and eight violins, while the birdsong employed is perhaps the most aurally exotic of any Messiaen work. The formal follow-through, moreover, is among his most systematic yet satisfying: the rigorous unfolding of the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Coda’ framing those which put the ensemble through its highly diverse paces, notably the third (‘Yamanaka’) and sixth (‘Les Oiseaux de Karuizawa’) movements with their virtuoso piano contributions, consummately brought off by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, while the fourth section (‘Gagaku’) features solo trumpet in combination with oboes and cor anglais – against a backdrop of percussion and string harmonics – which uncannily resembles the effect of a certain work by Ives.

Pierre BoulezSo to a second half of Boulez: his Sur Incises (1998, taking its cue from a short piano piece, Incises, of four years earlier) might be likened to an aural hall of mirrors: both in the symmetrical scoring for three each of pianos, harps and percussion; and in the precision by which this multiplicityof resonance is reflected between these instruments – whether singly, in dialogue or as an ensemble. At 36 minutes (Boulez has apparently extended the piece in recent years, though here he offered what might be called the ‘standard’ version), the work has an intricate, often complex sub-structure but pursues a relatively straightforward formal trajectory. After its speculative introduction, the music bursts into a toccata of sustained and often manic velocity, thereafter focusing on a sharply contrasted yet cumulative sequence of variants that explore these polar extremes of sound and motion. Yet for all its steady agglomeration of textures towards the climax, the work’s goal-directed progress is illusory – making its final retreat into a vast and ‘ringing’ silence feel the more inevitable.

This performance was as formidably assured as expected: cohesive, too, in a way that hardly suggests there is much to be gained in its extension. And whether Boulez intended this formation as a latter-day ‘replacement’ for the Classical instrumental ensemble, its capabilities could hardly be more thoroughly explored than here. A conceptual cul-de-sac, maybe, but an impressive one nevertheless.

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