LSO/Boulez – 2

Die glückliche Hand, Op.18
Osiris [UK premiere]
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Op.11

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
Peter Fried (bass)

BBC Singers

London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 May, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Pierre Boulez, 1987. ©Horst Trappe/Rue des ArchivesThe second of this season’s London Symphony Orchestra concerts conducted by Pierre Boulez began in uncompromising fashion with Schoenberg’s music-drama “Die glückliche Hand” (1913). A near-untranslatable title (The Knack), and a work whose Expressionist scenario – most of it consisting of elaborate stage directions – takes almost as long to read as its 20-minute duration.

The programme included nothing of this, though a resumé was given in Paul Griffiths’s note, while the surtitles featured only the text as sung or spoken by soloist and chorus – not an especially satisfactory compromise. Indeed, it might be best to forget the text altogether and experience the music for what it is: one of the richest and most imaginative of Schoenberg’s atonal-period scores – whether in the polyrhythmic interplay between singers and orchestra of its outer sections, the intense soul-searching of the even-numbered ones, or the textural complexity of its central section whose fugal texture unfolds in evermore unexpected ways. Peter Fried intoned the protagonist’s few lines with subdued fervency, and the brief but vital off-stage orchestral interjections were finely balanced. Otherwise, Boulez’s handling of the piece, whether in the detail or the whole, left nothing to chance. If not the unequivocal masterpiece that “Erwartung” is, “Die glückliche Hand” hardly deserves the derisory press it so often gets: the conviction of this performance confirmed that – whether from a Schoenbergian or Expressionist perspective – it has been both misrepresented and underestimated.

95 years after its completion, the piece certainly made a more provocative impression than did Matthias Pintscher’s Osiris (2007). Inspired partly by a Joseph Beuys canvas and partly by the legend concerning the ancient Egyptian god of fertility, this is an intricate study in metamorphosis deploying far-reaching motivic fragmentation and textural reconstruction. All well and good, but the motifs themselves are far from distinctive, while the two-stage process they undergo is only intermittently engrossing. Much of the problem is with musical transformation operating at what seems to be a decorative level: in common with other of Pintscher’s recent large-scale pieces, the surface is undeniably enticing but has little intrinsic substance. As composition per se, this is never less than virtuosic (as one might expect from a Chicago Symphony Orchestra commission), and the LSO responded with absolute assurance. Yet one wonders if this is the music the highly-gifted Pintscher really wants to write, and whether Boulez himself sees it as where orchestral composition is headed, or whether that it succeeds merely by putting a world-class orchestra through its paces.

Michelle DeYoung. Photograph: Christian SteinerThe second half was devoted to a concert-performance – quite probably the best way to experience the work – of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911). This has been a Boulez staple for some four decades, but one where his latter-day performances (and recording) have failed to impress. So it was here – not least because the orchestral playing, superb in its tonal lustre and uncovering of detail, was often less than unanimous: thus the music of the Fifth Door, with one unaccountable ‘non-entry’ and with scarcely one of its tutti entries entirely on cue. There were compensations: in particular, the Judit of Michelle DeYoung – ample evidence that this singer’s powers of characterisation have noticeably deepened, with a subtlety and interpretative range that makes Judit much more than the shrewish and hectoring figure she often seems. As Bluebeard, Peter Fried sang with commendable security but also a subdued manner that limited his authority – not least when greater implacability is called for in the fateful last stages. This is an opera whose cumulative intensity increases the more its ‘action’ is internalised, and Fried’s intent under-projection was never quite sufficient in context.

For his part, Boulez (who rightly dispensed with the spoken ‘Prologue’) often seemed content merely to keep the score moving. The revelation of the ‘lake of tears’ evinced little emotional chill, while the opening of the final door left one high and dry as regards the opera’s denouement. Impressive in its formal and expressive consistency though it was, those at all familiar with the piece will surely have been disappointed as to the intense emotional reserves that Boulez now feels no need to draw upon.

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