LSO/Boulez Gala Concert with Cecilia Bartoli

Béatrice et Bénédict – Overture
Les nuits d’été
Daphnis et Chloé

Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano)

London Philharmonic Choir

London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 April, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Love was in the air. This Gala concert (played again the following night) in aid of the UBS and LSO Music Education Centre at St Luke’s, and the Children’s Hospice Service, CHASE, contrasted Shakespearean romance – Beatrice’s and Benedick’s clandestine attraction (Much Ado About Nothing) – with that of Greek poet Longus’s narrative of kidnapped Chloe being re-united with Daphnis. In between, six Gautier texts, each describing love in a different guise.

An old friend of the LSO, Pierre Boulez – once he’d dispensed with an ideally foreshortened National Anthem (one ’nudged’ to its close with in-joke smiles from orchestra and conductor) – led the Berlioz with perfect pacing, in which detail was teased out and exactingly placed. The melancholy to be heard near the opening was given full value, there was a magically quiet lead-in to the bustling allegro and succeeding moments of pathos stabbed the heart.

Boulez was a constant purveyor of magical colours and half-lights, always sounded with wonderful clarity, for Cecilia Bartoli’s traversal of Les nuits d’été; though her rendition became somewhat samey, a tad predictable. Singing from the score suggested that she hasn’t yet fully absorbed the music and text for a comprehensive putting-back to an audience; she will I hope find a more flowing tempo for ’Absence’, here interminable. That her voice is hugely attractive is undeniable, especially its cloud-floating quality; if the occasional husky tone informed her lowest register and there was a slight strain at the top, there was much to admire in her restraint, her intimacy and her refusal to gallery-please. Her winsome delivery and potent expression are positive attributes too. If Bartoli’s ultimately unvaried response reinforced the need for more than one singer, as Berlioz intended, she became the complete performer with her Berlioz encore – Zaide – castanets to the fore, no score, Bartoli sung with a freedom, communication and range that confirmed her not-quite-there account of the song-cycle.

Ravel described Daphnis as a ’choreographic symphony’ and went further: “[Daphnis and Chloe] is built symphonically on a very strict tonal plan by means of a few themes, the development of which ensures the work’s homogeneity”. Analogous with the composer’s concept, Boulez threw a line over the whole and led a wonderfully lucid account – from a daringly hushed opening (when it could be heard under indiscriminate coughing!) to the bacchanalian splendour of the ’danse generale’. Boulez’s scrupulousness and characteristic concern for balance didn’t hinder atmosphere or thrills – ’danse guerriere’ teemed with incident. Structure first, theatre second – at 52 minutes, Boulez knocked five off his fairly recent DG (Berlin Philharmonic) recording; here the overall shape and interrelated pacing seemed spot-on.

The LSO provided equal measure of virtuosity and rapture; but nothing was applied, the glow came from within, created by a conductor who has unravelled the score’s inner workings. As such, Boulez is as textually revealing as the late Celibidache; different agenda though – with Boulez, it’s from the page; with Celibidache it’s an acoustic picture (epiphenomena and all). Not one to underline or exaggerate, Boulez’s music-making requires intelligent listening. With homogeneous tones from the London Philharmonic Choir (the London Symphony Chorus preparing for its Barbican concert this Sunday) and liquid-centre flute solos of quiet ecstasy, I’d suggest queuing for the second performance. I can promise you Bartoli knows a thing or two about castanets!

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