Pierre Boulez 80th-birthday Concert

Boulez
Le Marteau sans maître
Sur Incises

The Warehouse Ensemble:

Nicholas Cartledge (flute)
Rhiad Chibah (viola)
Jonathan Preiss (guitar)
Oliver Cox (vibraphone)
Matthew West (xylorimba)
Nicholas Reed (percussion)
Owen Gunnell (percussion)
Hiroaki Takenouchi (piano)
Peter O’Hagan (piano)
James Young (piano)
Sally Pryce (harp)
Keziah Thomas (harp)
Louise Duggan (harp)

Alison Wells (soprano)

Edwin Roxburgh


Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 10 March, 2005
Venue: The Warehouse, Theed Street, London

Both this venue and its eponymous ensemble are subsets of the organisation that is the London Festival Orchestra. In his introduction to concert, the Orchestra’s conductor, Ross Pople, said that the Warehouse is a perfect setting for Pierre Boulez’s music (the converted space and spare elegance perhaps betraying Modernist overtones?) and that the resident Ensemble is a perfect showcase for the flexibility and talent of the Orchestra as a whole. Which was indeed the case here, the musicians proving themselves to be passionate and capable advocates of these masterworks from opposite ends of Boulez’s career.

“Le Marteau sans maître”, a suite based on a cycle by the Surrealist poet René Char, is a colourful work evocative of Debussy, Schoenberg, Messiaen and the music of South-East Asia (including Japanese Noh theatre). The nine movements encompass the three overlapping ‘settings’ with a combination of discrete instrumentation that highlights mechanico-timbral relationships and complex rhythmic and harmonic textures. Most impressive is Boulez’s ability to exclude ambiguity (no diatonic residue here!) in one sense while promoting it in another (the ‘meaning’). On the other hand, his Sur Incises (based on the composer’s Incises, for solo piano, and written for Paul Sacher’s 90th-birthday) is a highly rhythmic, almost tonal work in which the mechanico-timbral characteristics of the piano are fleshed out by using three groups of three: piano, harp and percussion. The piano as an instrument is exploded, as it were, projecting its vocabulary infinitely outwards (another characteristic of Boulez’s music is its eternally unfinished ‘work-in-progress’ quality).

Explosive is a fitting way to describe the Warehouse Ensemble’s performance of Sur Incises. Under the expert direction of Edwin Roxburgh, the sheer rhythmic vitality of the work came to the fore, with the (mostly) young performers not only coping with but also showing their fluency in Boulez’s complex language. But although the tone colours and frenzied melodic material were also projected well enough, the overall effect was diffuse and a little muddy, owing to the venue not allowing a more spacious arrangement of the instrumental groups. Thus a lot of the antiphonal interplay and filigree texture in this work was lost, leaving the rhapsodic ‘solo’ sections to regain some clarity.

It was a different story with “Le Marteau sans maître”, the surroundings matching the size and nature of the ensemble perfectly. Alto flute, viola, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba (a large xylophone) and a huge array of other percussion instruments were subtly employed to render the acoustic with a finely differentiated palette. Here the music blossoms out of the poetry, which is its centre in much the same way as the piano is of Sur Incises, and this was highlighted by Alison Wells’s clear, expressive singing (I noticed Jane Manning, a leading exponent of contemporary vocal practice, in the front row – perhaps she had coached Wells?). Particularly impressive was the Debussy-like “l’artisanat furieux” where the flute alone accompanies the voice. I should like to have heard the viola a little away from the guitar (as in the composer’s 1985 recording) instead of next to it; but I’m just being captious. This, like the entire concert, was a rare treat, performed with real conviction. Certainly, “Le Marteau…” is still a challenging listen after fifty-odd years – and yet the house was near-full. Very encouraging.

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