LSO/Boulez – By George! – 5 October

Palimpsest I
Palimpsest II [world premiere]
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Le martyre de Saint Sébastien

Sally Matthews (soprano)
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Sara Mingardo (contralto)
Thibault de Montalembert (narrator)
London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 October, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Pierre Boulez’s latest series of concerts with the LSO opened, appropriately for a composer and conductor so identified with musical radicalism, with the generally acknowledged ’beginning’ of modern music. Swift and passionate, this Faune was a salutary lesson to those who complain that Boulez has been conducting the same repertoire the same way for too long. None of his earlier London performances had quite this expressive sweep – complemented by playing of impressive ease and control.

More Debussy occupied the second half. The incidental music for Gabriele d’Annunzio’s spectacle on the conversion and death-fulfilment of Saint Sebastian, though revived on numerous occasions in recent years, always poses problems as to how to present some of the composer’s most alluring and expressive music in a format which preserves the overall synopsis. Boulez’s abridgement of the text pares the narrative to the bone; even so, its not hard to feel that long stretches merely mark time when unaccompanied, and otherwise get in the way of some wonderfully resourceful orchestral writing. Nor do the subject and imagery of d’Annunzio’s writing constitute obstacles in themselves; rather the dutiful and increasingly tired repetition of symbols, couched in precious-sounding verse, fails to engage sympathy.

Musically, the performance was an undoubted success. Alice Coote and Sara Mingardo combined sonorously in their brief numbers, with Sally Matthews radiant in her celestial solos. The London Symphony Chorus had clearly been encouraged to extract maximum variety from their contributions, while Boulez directed with conviction a score that, compared to other late works of Debussy’s, can easily become diffuse. And, with his immaculate diction and thoughtful emotional pacing, Thibault de Montalembert ensured that the narrative fulfilled its role as continuity with tasteful effect.

As well as marking the opening of Boulez’s latest residency, this evening also inaugurated the LSO’s year-long series of musical encounters with George Benjamin. And what better way to begin “By George!” than with the first performance of the composer’s latest piece. Two and a half years ago, Boulez premiered Palimpsest I – an intricate accretion of textures from memorable initial ideas. The stealthy closing passage suggested that Benjamin would, in time, extend the piece. Now, Palimpsest II has emerged as a more elaborate and dynamically forceful ’double-take’ on the musical processes of its predecessor. Again, there’s an unexpected pay-off, as aspects of both pieces are superimposed to intriguing effect. The layering of ideas, at both an aural and conceptual level, is tellingly achieved.

The performance – high and low strings pitted against sizeable complements of brass and woodwind – seemed accurate and insightful, confirming that Boulez has lost none of his interpretative acumen when it comes to directing new music with which he feels in sympathy. An auspicious launching, then, of two series, the future instalments of which are keenly anticipated.

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