Piano Concerto No.1
The Firebird [Original 1910 Version]

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 11 October, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Another interesting and rewarding programme from Boulez and the LSO. Varèse’s music is not often performed, but Boulez has been a tireless champion over the years, recording much of Varèse’s output for CBS in the 1970s, and revisiting some of the works in Chicago for DG.

Intégrales is a typically pithy, terse composition for wind, brass and percussion. Although it is not, ostensibly ’about’ anything in particular, it does seem to convey the atmosphere of a big noisy city, with all the restlessness that this implies. Beginning with a piercing clarinet phrase (strikingly reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Petrushka), Varèse constructs huge blocks of sounds from dissonant chords, coloured by vivid percussion writing which includes such oddities as the sinister Lion’s-roar and some iron chains. The final section of this brief four-movement piece (the movements being continuous) is introduced by muttering percussion followed by a plaintive, desolate oboe melody. More restless music is heard again and builds to an abrupt close. This performance was excellent, with superb solo playing and precise ensemble, perceptively conducted.

The opening of Bartók’s First Piano Concerto is arresting indeed with its hammered, re-iterated octaves. Maurizio Pollini lunged into the fray with abandon, displaying a passion that he does not always choose to reveal. His playing had predictable precision, and also more than a touch of élan and bravura, dispatching some of the most fearsome writing with apparent ease. This is a work that utilises the percussive side of the piano to the full, yet in the strangely still ’Andante’ there is real poetry in the piano’s interplay with the percussion. This was expressively delivered by Pollini, but firmly kept from becoming sentimental. The propulsive ’Finale’ was further evidence of Pollini’s ardour and commitment, and the whole performance left one feeling breathless. Throughout, the LSO and Boulez partnered Pollini with knife-edge accuracy, and there was a tangible sense of dialogue and interplay.

Stravinsky’s Firebird in its original 1910 version has long been a Boulez favourite and it is surely not too fanciful to hear echoes of its lush and glittering scoring in Boulez’s own Notations – his orchestrations for similarly vast forces of some of his early piano pieces. Although Stravinsky became dismissive of his orchestra being “wastefully large”, the sheer glamour and sparkle is irresistible – one can sense the young composer flexing hiscompositional muscles on the large instrumental palette he calls for. It would perhaps have been too much to expect the extra brass which are required both on and offstage – it was omitted on this occasion.

Boulez – predictably – did not wallow in splashes of orchestral colouring, but ensured that detail was clear and pointed. The mysterious opening was dark in the extreme, with growling bass instruments and a sense of tension and menace. There is a drawback to hearing the complete ballet devoid of stage action in that there are passages – admittedly few in number – where the music hangs fire, as it were, with moments which really only make sense in the context of choreography. Boulez took care that such points were not lingered over, and that the music moved purposefully on to the next set piece. The ’Dance of the Firebird’, for instance, was all light and grace, with chattering winds and light string figuration. Later on, the Firebird’s pleas were heartfelt and poignant, and the ’Round Dance’ beautifully expressive – the solo oboe playing here was outstanding.

With the arrival of the evil Kaschei, Stravinsky looks forward to some of the barbarity and ferocity which he was to unlock in The Rite of Spring and this performance of the ’Infernal Dance’ was remarkable for its sustained vehemence, with some explosive bass drum playing, elemental in its impact. At the moment of Kaschei’s death, Boulez unleashed a torrent of fury that was astonishing. The noble horn solo that introduces the ’Finale’ was played to perfection and the peroration was built to a powerful conclusion, with majestic brass crowning the final bars.

The partnership of the LSO and Pierre Boulez is a very productive one – long may they work together.

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