Pierre Boulez 80th-Birthday Concert

Trois ballades de Villon
Le soleil des eaux
Daphnis et Chloé

Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 4 November, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Pierre Boulez – spry and spruce as ever – is now an octogenarian, and this was a heart-warming occasion, re-uniting him with the orchestra of which he was Chief Conductor from 1971-1975.

More importantly, it was a concert of committed, dedicated music-making confirming that Boulez has lost none of his interpretative or communicative powers.

The ever-elusive Jeux was a reminder of Boulez’s championing of certain works which, until he took them up, were unjustly neglected. Indeed, Boulez is one of the editors of the critical, corrected published edition of the score of Jeux. His way with the piece – as is his custom – is to present it lucidly, allowing both the details and the whole to make their own impression. It was not, to be sure, a particularly ‘dance-like’ rendering and there were, perhaps, moments when one might have preferred – for want of a better word – a slightly less ‘earnest’ approach. Nevertheless, the structure and intricacies of the score – right from the start (where this listener hears echoes of Dukas’s L’Apprenti Sorcier) to its aphoristic conclusion – were there for all to hear.

It remains an odd piece, and through the original choreographic scenario – a tennis match – is a decidedly peculiar starting-point for a dramatic work, Debussy, in this poème dansé, produced one of his most interesting and forward-looking scores.

The “Trois ballades de Villon” finds Debussy treating 15th-century poems as if they were contemporary to him – and very effective settings they are too, with their responsive and evocative word-painting. Elizabeth Atherton was somewhat covered by the orchestra at times, but her response to, and conveying of, the text was admirable.

The first song was the one which found her less able to project strongly, but in the second – a ‘Prayer to Our Lady’, which is more sensuous than sacred – and in the concluding ‘The Ladies of Paris’, with its sly wit and good humour, she delivered Villon’s verses and Debussy’s setting of them in an engaging manner.The orchestral accompaniment was scrupulously executed, with some telling woodwind colouring and aptly pointed articulation.

It was most interesting to then have an example of Pierre Boulez’s own approach to text, since his setting of René Char’s poetry places him very firmly in the line of French composers. The opening of the first of two poems – ‘Plaint of the Lizard in Love’ – suggests an evocation of words and atmosphere that is directly comparable, post-Debussy, to earlier 20th-century French composers.

Elizabeth Atherton was, if anything, even more confident in her wide-ranging and seemingly awkward lines than she had been in the Debussy. Boulez’s approach in this first setting is to allow the soprano to declaim unaccompanied, with appropriate subsequent musical ‘illustration’ – the orchestral depiction of “the grasses bending in the fields”, anticipating the presence of a snake, is a particularly striking moment. A chorus (BBC Singers) is introduced for ‘The Sorgue (Song for Yvonne)’, which is required to deploy a variety of vocal utterance – singing, speech, muttering and so forth – which brings to vivid life the image of a powerful river. Over which, from time to time, the soprano soars aloft – never more effectively than at the end with the word “l’horizon”.

A comparatively ‘early’ work (from 1950) – and, as ever with Boulez, subject to revision (1958 and 1965) – “Le soleil des eaux” is an example of the composer at his freshest and most inventive. It received a fine performance, with the multifarious percussion contribution being especially colourful.

To begin the concert’s second half, Pierre Boulez was presented with an ‘Academy Fellowship’ of “The British Academy of Composers and Songwriters”. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies introduced the ceremony, and in making the presentation, Sir Harrison Birtwistle had some cutting things to say about critics, the future of BBC Radio 3 and classical music in general in this country. His comments were uncomfortable to hear, but they had more than a grain of truth about them.

Although this concert was mounted primarily to celebrate Boulez’s 80th birthday, it was also dedicated to the memory of Sidonie Goossens (1899-2004), who was the BBCSO’s principal harpist from 1930-1980. Boulez paid a touching tribute to her in a note in the programme, and it was fitting that this choice of music featured harps prominently. Throughout this concert the playing of the BBCSO was unimpeachable. In point of fact, Boulez elicited consistently fine and incisive playing, which has not been a feature of this orchestra’s work of late.

Certainly, the virtuoso demands of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé ballet – a symphonie chorégraphique, to use the composer’s subtitle – were compellingly met.

This was not only an immaculately delivered performance from the purely musical aspect, but dramatic passages were brought thrillingly alive. The brusque music for the pirates, for instance, was extraordinarily faithful to the marking ‘Animé et très rude’, and Boulez allowed a more visceral approach than he would perhaps have done thirty years ago.

Conversely, expressive passages were delivered caressingly – even lovingly – without ever spilling over into inappropriate lushness or over-sentimentality, which would be alien to both Ravel’s intentions and Boulez’s sensibilities.

The combined BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus was secure in its wordless contribution; and rather than constantly singing “ah”, the vowel sounds were modified to suit the context. Chorus and orchestra united thrillingly in the final ‘general dance’, which, whilst always under control, conveyed a sense of breathless exhilaration and rejoicing.

Pierre Boulez was greeted with warm acclaim and enthusiasm. Although his 80th-birthday was on 26 March, it was good to see him celebrating this milestone in London, where he has done so much good work throughout his career.

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