Essential Boulez – 2

Dérive 2 [Premiere of latest version]
Symphony No.7 in E minor

London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 October, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Back with the LSO for concerts heralding his 80th birthday next March, Pierre Boulez’s latest series focuses on his own music and that of composers who have formed the backbone of his conducting repertoire in recent decades. This programme consisted of two works contrasting the minimal and the maximal in terms of forces required.

Devotees of Boulez might recall a 12-minute version of Dérive 2 that he brought to the South Bank in the early 1990s. Reworked at the end of the decade, it now returns as a substantially larger work – scored for a diverse nonet of wind and strings, plus two players with the expected line-up of tuned percussion. The starting-point, as for the earlier piece in this series, is the musical anagram derived from the name ‘Sacher’, which Boulez first utilised nearly three decades ago. Unlike the crepuscular, slow-moving Dérive 1 (1984), however, its successor is a rapid, often hectic interweaving of lines that rarely threatens to lose initial impetus. Certainly the opening minutes are as uncompromising as anything Boulez has written, though the sense of balance and articulation within the ensemble could only be that of the mature composer – as is the emphasis on more rhythmically and harmonically stable writing as the work progresses. The close, composed in the last few weeks, with a series of staggered chords concluding on the horn’s A with which the piece began, is both telling and inevitable in its sense of formal completion.

What is less inevitable is the degree of transition that the work now has to go through in order to achieve that completeness; as if music predicated on the idea of parenthesis had become trapped in a sequence of such parentheses that may not be essential to its unfolding. In short, does the piece as it stands need to last for 25 minutes? As merely the latest among Boulez’s ‘works in progress’, Dérive 2 has – almost by definition – the feeling of an entity in the process of becoming – yet, unlike earlier such works, the chief ambiguity seems to lie not in its continuation but in its very continuity. A committed, attentive account by members of the LSO at least succeeded in holding doubts at bay.

It was a different though, alas, not the required ambiguity that marked out the account of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Long considered his most equivocal such work in terms of formal and expressive follow-through, its ambivalence is one in which Boulez, with his avowedly post-Romantic viewpoint, might be expected to revel. Indeed, there were conspicuous highlights: above all – a flowing approach to the second ‘Nachtmusik’, not overly amorous, that conveyed a poised and never saccharine charm while not neglecting its frequent half-lights. The first ‘Nachtmusik’, too, was thoughtfully delivered – making much of the equivocation between scherzo and ländler that was to become something more threatening in the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies. A pity the scherzo’s malevolence was sold short, as the LSO’s playing had a lightness that audibly kept the music aloft on its own adrenaline.

The principal problems concerned, as so often, the outer movements. Boulez’s deadpan manner in the sombre opening separated it off squarely from the Allegro con fuoco continuation – with the result that the movement proceeded on a stop-go basis without generating the momentum necessary to power what was then Mahler’s most complex amalgam of sonata and rondo procedures. The central interlude has the requisite etherealness – Boulez bringing out its restrained longing without a noticeable slackening of tempo – but this was not enough to compensate for general lack of decisiveness in terms both of formal cohesion and, surprisingly, of textural definition. Too often, more heavily-scored passages sounded ugly and confused; brutal in a way that had less to do with expression than with execution.

Concerning the Finale, Boulez is quoted as saying that “… the difficulty is to find a unity that runs through the different episodes”. On the basis of this performance, his conception falls some way short of a satisfactory solution. Mapping out the course of the movement with didactic precision can help in identifying its pitfalls, but not in overcoming them so the music’s effervescence feels spontaneous and uninhibited – neither quality being much in evidence here. The movement consequently seemed no more than the sum of its parts; the overlaying of first-movement material near the close sounding as awkward in practice as it does on paper, and failing to point up the tonal ambiguity at work from the outset. Add to this a frequently crude, sometimes fallible orchestral response, and it becomes hard to avoid the view, taken overall, that this was far from Boulez and the LSO’s finest 75 minutes.

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