Essential Boulez – 3

Four Orchestral Pieces, Op.12
Gesungene Zeit
Notations 1, 7, 4, 3 & 2 [piano and orchestral versions]

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

John Alley (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 October, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The London Symphony Orchestra’s “Essential Boulez” series concluded with this concise and well-balanced concert featuring the composer-conductor’s own music, a work by a composer (Rihm) little associated with him, and music by Bartók that he has almost single-handedly brought to public notice.

The Four Pieces by Bartók are an oddly-assorted but formerly coherent sequence of studies, composed in 1912 but not orchestrated until after World War One and replete with anticipations and echoes of the three stage-works composed during that period of restlessness and experimentation. Boulez does not linger over the gorgeous soundscape of ‘Preludio’ these days, but its translucence and sensuality came through undimmed. The Mandarin-like acerbity of ‘Scherzo’ is tailor-made for the LSO’s demonstrative virtuosity, with the Holstian ‘Intermezzo’ eliciting a thoughtful response from Boulez. Nor did he overstate the rhetoric of ‘Marcia Funebre’ – a last throwback to the idiom Bartók had mined in his symphonic poem Kossuth a decade before, and which here sounds the effective death-knell for nineteenth-century emotionalism.

By the same token, Wolfgang Rihm’s Gesungene Zeit (1992) might be thought of as a farewell to the heated Expressionism which – in terms of a German aesthetic at least – has been a recurrent feature of the last century, and which permeates this prolific composer’s output. Scored for a fastidiously-selected chamber orchestra – with just two violins alongside the modest complement of strings, wind and percussion – this is music which ‘sings’ in raptly inward terms for almost its entire, 23-minute duration, the two movements effortlessly elided as the ‘time chants’ of the title sound forth in ethereal but never tranquil tones; a portent, perhaps, of the role that the late music of Luigi Nono subsequently played in Rihm’s ceaselessly omnivorous thinking.

The work was composed for Anne-Sophie Mutter – whose superfine legato and control of the long line are extensively catered for, and whose prowess in such matters was impressively demonstrated here. Mutter’s commissions over the last 15 years have been a decidedly mixed bag: this is among the best of them (as it is one of the most satisfyingly consistent of Rihm’s works), and the rapport between soloist and conductor bodes well for the concerto that Boulez is writing for her and which should see the light of day in 2006.

What looked to be a short second half was somewhat lengthened by Boulez’s chatty opening remarks, and the prefacing of each of his orchestral Notations with its much briefer piano version – attentively rendered by John Alley. Indeed, there is no more fascinating aspect to Boulez’s composing than the transformation of these twelve-note (but not serial) miniatures from his 21st year (1945) into the intricate studies that make commanding yet subtle use of a large orchestra. Having reworked the first four Notations as a set during 1977-8, Boulez took until 1997 to release what was the seventh piece in the original sequence. At almost five minutes, this currently forms a sensual ‘slow movement’ after the capricious First Notation – followed by the restive No.4, the sultry timbral shades of No.3 and the cracking excitement of No.2 (rather slackly played first time round, which may explain Boulez repeating it as an unexpected encore).

Lasting just over a quarter of an hour, these Notations are a testament to the formidable expertise which Boulez has amassed during nearly five decades of orchestral conducting. Hopefully the long-promised remaining seven Notations will eventually surface, and Boulez will be on hand to present them with the LSO – an orchestra which has given some of its most worthwhile concerts in recent years and which, some unevenness in this series notwithstanding, can normally be relied upon to give of its best on his visits to the capital.

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