LSO/Boulez – 17 October

Poème de l’extase, Op.54
Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35
Six Pieces, Op.6
The Miraculous Mandarin, Op.19

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 October, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Pierre Boulez’s latest residency with the LSO ended with this concert of complements and contrasts, featuring two of what might be termed his ’side interests’ with two of his undoubted ’warhorses’. Although he has reinvestigated Scriabin in recent years, Boulez first conducted the Poem of Ecstasy during his New York tenure in the mid-’70s. Not unexpectedly, Scriabin the crazed mystic is played down in favour of Scriabin the deviser of ingenious structures with which to keep his capricious harmonic language in check. So, little overt intoxication, but an unusually lucid rendering of the work’s content – at the level both of motivic detail and formal paragraphs – and an unerring sense of repetition actually heightening the final sense of release, rather than merely preparing for it. Not to mention trumpet playing which made sure that any loss of fervency was merely apparent.

A similar strategy was evident in Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto. Boulez’s take on this composer, whose music he will be investigating further, is that of a synthesis between Ravel and Bartók. The voluptuousness was held firmly in check by a textural clarity still rarely encountered in this music, at the same time revealing a deft three-movements-in-one design. At one with this approach was Christian Tetzlaff, his tonal purity and poised but never frigid expression a sure guide to the music’s escapism and fantasy – and with the brief cadenza made more of a catalyst to the main climax than usual. At around 22 minutes, this knocked six minutes off the magical account from Kyoko Takezawa and Tadaaki Otaka heard at this summer’s Proms, though the impression here was less one of faster tempi than lightness of articulation. Eschewing the rhapsodic, it never compromised the music’s sense of intuitive unfolding, or the inevitability as it comes full circle.

If the second half was marginally less engrossing, this was because Boulez’s credentials in Webern and Bartók are proven – with, unlike the passionate reassessment of Debussy’s Faune in the first of these concerts, no real interpretative surprises. Beautifully played, the Op.6 Pieces even seemed a touch safe – though, unusually, Boulez appeared to have opted for the 1928 revision, with its more precisely calculated sonorities and self-contained expressive limits. [Boulez told me that with Op.6 on the LSO’s Japanese tour, it was uneconomic to play the original version on this occasion – Ed.] Even so, he can tease out overall coherence from the music’s pointillist soundworld like no other conductor.

In terms of marrying emotional intensity and realising some near-impossible instrumental balances, this was probably the most compulsive Miraculous Mandarin of the numerous accounts Boulez has given in London. With the symmetry of actions and musical motifs firmly drawn, it lived on the edge only as the music demanded – the LSO responding virtuosically in a work to which it has long done justice. Fittingly, it was in the final third – the post-Suite portion – that the performance really took flight, as the lurid scenario was conjured up in Bartók’s most audacious orchestration, and with the bleak irony of the mandarin’s final ’release’ much in evidence. Proof, once again, that Boulez the interpreter does not stand still, but uncovers new subtleties by degree.

  • LSO/Boulez in Japan, October 21-29:
  • 21, Tokyo – Boulez, Bartók, Stravinsky
  • 22, Sopporo – Scriabin, Szymanowski, Stravinsky
  • 23, Tokyo – Bartók, Mahler
  • 24, Oita – Bartók, Mahler
  • 26, Toyota – Bartók, Mahler
  • 27, Fukui – Bartók, Stravinsky
  • 29, Tokyo – Scriabin, Szymanowski, Webern, Bartók

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