Essential Boulez – 1

Livre pour cordes
Piano Concerto No.3
The Rite of Spring

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 8 October, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The first of four LSO concerts with Pierre Boulez, now just a few months away from his 80th birthday. His Livres pour cordes expands and revises a string quartet completed in 1949. For the most part it is placid and flowing with a rhythmic presence reminiscent of Debussy-like movement; it’s quite a gentle affair, really. Four or five times a decisive beat takes charge then steps back to allow the “ceaseless, mercurial textural and rhythmic elaborations” to resume.

In the Bartók, Hélène Grimaud and Boulez combined in a lively yet rapt rapport to produce a Concerto No.3 such as you have never heard (to be recorded for DG). This is Bartók in his last year – mellower, but rhythmically incisive still, technically demanding, thrusting, often hectic, and only momentarily introspective.

As usual, Grimaud took risks – and, as usual, they derived chiefly from the rare authenticity of her musicianship. (György Sándor, who gave the premiere of this concerto, was one of Grimaud’s teachers.) As the first movement opened, we heard phrasing. This was the first of Grimaud’s surprises. Old habits often die hard; pianists, even in this concerto, tend to treat Bartók’s piano writing too percussively, chopping his bars into little pieces with a meat cleaver. Grimaud presented a flow and the music sang.

Her playing of the Adagio religioso was a tour de force. Her opening chords were weighty and magisterial, skilfully judged and absolutely, resonantly equal. As the movement progressed, Grimaud shaped it into a living globule of sound, grave and steady. Notable, later into the movement, was an exquisite interchange between flute and piano. Noteworthy throughout was Grimaud’s staccato notes, each one considered individually; few soloists prepare with such fastidious discernment. Yet the performance was anything but contrived. On the contrary, it was greatly moving. She judged the vigour and strength of the last movement perfectly and, throughout, Boulez led lucid orchestral support.

Boulez first met Stravinsky in 1952 – at the same time, roughly, that he studied The Rite of Spring with Messiaen, who, according to Boulez, “treated the rhythms as if they were characters in a play.” Earlier this year I heard The Rite under Hugh Wolff, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, a barnstorming performance with all the splendour of a circus, concentrating on loud, garish colours, on brass and timpani; alas, it had no audible strings, thus missing out on Stravinsky’s reference to the Earth’s deeper pulse.

Boulez, on the other hand, gave us something Debussy might have had in his head while reading the score of The Rite. The opening bassoon solo, intertwining soon with other woodwind, held its due space instead of being treated perfunctorily. Boulez waited for bassoonist Rachel Gough to set the pace. The rhythms were omnipresent but not crudely dominating; I particularly relished being able to hear the lower and plucked strings – even while the brass was playing its socks off. This was a pulsating, timeless performance of music that is surely also timeless.

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