Livre pour cordes
Poèmes pour Mi
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [1874 version, edited Nowak]
Sally Matthews (soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 8 October, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
For his first concert this season with the London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding had assembled a tough and wide-ranging programme – which one imagines that the strings, in particular, will long remember.
Certainly there are few more demanding pieces in the repertoire than Boulez’s Livre pour cordes – hisintended reworking of a Livre pour quatour that was (almost) completed in 1949 but long withdrawn and only attempted as a whole when such ensembles had become more or less equal to its exacting rhythmicnotation. Typically, a reworking of the first movement, first heard some 40 years ago, is still all that has so far surfaced of the orchestral transcription: the first part itself having been revised in 1989.
As it now stands, the piece’s two parts elide almost (but not quite) imperceptibly into each other – the intensive harmonic elaboration of ‘Variation’ merging into the more rhythmic but no less intricate interweaving of ‘Mouvement’; both parts evincing an exceptional textural richness (the revision being undertaken with the Vienna Philharmonic in mind) to which the LSO strings did more than justice.
The pupil-teacher relationship between Boulez and Messiaen was not without its tensions, though one Messiaen work for Boulez seems always to have had an affection is the song-cycle “Poèmes pour Mi” (1936/7), whose orchestral version effortlessly takes it place within a French tradition stretching back as far as Berlioz. The ‘Mi’ of the title is the composer’s pet-name for his first wife, the violinist Claire Delbos, and the nine poems addressed to her are an odd mixture of the sensuous and moralistic– ‘naïve’ in the truest sense. The vocal writing is itself an unlikely but compelling fusion of Debussyian clarity with Wagnerian intensity, set in relief by orchestration which is distinctive in spite of its lack of the hallmarks (or mannerisms, according to conviction) that came into play the following decade.
A soprano so identifying with Anne Trulove in the Royal Opera’s recent staging of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” might not be thought overly ‘dramatic’, yet Sally Matthews lacked nothing in command or presence – as witnessed by her striking projection of the opening ‘Action des grâces’ or her sheer incisiveness of attack in ‘Epouvante’. Conversely, her lyrical poise in the airy ‘Ta voix’ and caressing ‘Le Collier’, before the sustained eloquence of the closing ‘Prière exaucée’. Harding secured a committed response from the LSO, vivid and subtle by turns, but did not always control dynamics in the more powerfully scored numbers. Nevertheless, this was an insightful and always sympathetic account of what – along with his first two organ cycles – is the finest of Messiaen’s pre-war works.
A pity this concert had a relatively meagre attendance. Whether it would have made a difference had Harding’s choosing to perform the 1874 version of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony been more widely known is a moot point: certainly the LSO had not publicised this, while Stephen Johnson’s programme note was curiously sketchy on the matter. The original version of the Fourth has won nothing like the acceptance enjoyed by that of the Third and performances remain rare – the revision considered to be an instance, along with that of the Eighth, where Bruckner had ‘got it right’ second time around.
Yet this is by means a straightforward matter. Given with a conviction as was often evident tonight banishes any thought of the 1874 Fourth being merely of historical interest: had Bruckner heard it, his revisions may have been less far reaching. The point is underlined in the first movement, where differences centre on greater diversity of texture and a tonal trajectory whose inconsistencies are largely outweighed by their greater fluidity – not uncertainty – of perspective. Marked simply Allegro, it may lack the revision’s expressive poise, but its unceasing momentum – underpinned by startlingly uninhibited ostinatos – rivets attention from the outset. The orchestration has been characterised as Wagnerian – which fairly describes its intricacy though not its clarity, with such as the developmental transition into the reprise or the surging though non-rhetorical coda made part of an organic whole.
It would be interesting to know if Harding has previously conducted the work in its familiar 1878/80 revision. Certainly this first movement had a slow-burning gravitas that does not quite accord either with its tempo designation or (more importantly) its underlying rhythmic profile. Yet the conviction instilled into the music was undeniable, as was equally the case in the second movement – its ‘funeral march’ gait less overt when the scoring is appreciably more translucent and leading melodic lines feel not so much vague as ambivalent. The first climax was pointedly held back from resolution, and while Harding’s handling of an additional phase of development just failed to set the main climax in greater emotional relief, the briefer coda distilled a wistful resignation which was most affectingly rendered.
Again, Harding took a relatively measured approach to the scherzo which the composer discarded in its entirety during revision. No less an authority as Robert Simpson has described it as “perhaps the worst composition of Bruckner’s maturity”. What actually emerges, however, is his most uninhibitedsuch movement: its solo horn calls – superbly inflected here by David Pyatt – audibly feeding into the crescendoing string tremolos that follow. Nor should the trio be thought a failure in its piquant subverting of the scherzo’s leading motif, while the coda drives home the tonal design with a headlong aplomb.
Best of all in the 1874 version, though, is the finale. The revision is more evenly thought through in its formal paragraphing, but it also has a self-consciousness (notably in the C minor theme Bruckner introduces to ‘beef up’ the second subject) that the original thrillingly avoids. The opening idea, naïve in essence yet refreshingly astringent in manner, elides into the rustic second subject with greater subtlety, and if the ‘codetta’ theme sounds as if hot off the organ pedals, the development avoids the formal fragmentation which set in as Bruckner became unsure how to formalise its ground-plan. The coda, less perfectly achieved than in 1880, is better integrated and also thrillingly impulsive – rounding off the whole work with an irresistible momentum such as Bruckner never again attempted.
Harding, too, seemed fully convinced by Bruckner’s first-time solution here – directing the movement with a naturalness that, together with the LSO’s finely-honed response, made it inevitable as well as cohesive. Whatever its shortcomings, then, this performance more than vindicated Harding’s decision to programme Bruckner’s most radical symphonic design: one that, if not superceding the revision, is worthy to stand alongside it. Those unable to attend the concert can judge for themselveswhen it is broadcast: chances are, they will regret not having been there in person.