Pierre Boulez at 90 – Livre pour cordes & Rituel, with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – LSO/Peter Eötvös

Livre pour cordes
The Rite of Spring
Rituel: in memoriam Bruno Maderna

London Symphony Orchestra
Peter Eötvös

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 April, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Pierre BoulezPhotograph: www.ingpen.co.uk

Continuing on from the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion day devoted to his music, the LSO here paid tribute to Pierre Boulez with this judiciously designed programme in which two of the composer’s most characteristic pieces enclosed a twentieth-century classic.

Although Livre pour quatuor (1949) that gave rise to it has seeped back into circulation over recent years, Livre pour cordes (1968) that started out as “simple” transcription only to become a radical reassessment has never progressed beyond the reworking of its opening two movements; themselves being revised in 1989 so as to result in a continuous evolution whose initial ‘Variation’ proliferates in texture as it does in expressive range over the ‘Mouvement’ that follows. Under Peter Eötvös, the LSO strings sounded effortlessly assured.

After the interval came a welcome revival for Rituel (1975) – that “litany for an imaginary ceremonial” which Boulez essayed ostensibly as a tribute to his departed colleague Bruno Maderna, but which can equally be heard as a ‘requiem’ for the (heroic) failure of the post-war musical avant-garde as a whole. Much has been made of this piece as standing outside the essential concerns of its composer’s output: in fact it ranges widely, while not inclusively, across his preoccupations – and if the influence of Messiaen seems more than usually audible here, such only points to a presence most often played down (not least by Boulez himself). It is in the synthesis of the hieratic with the remorseless, moreover, such as gives this work a slow-burning intensity and cumulative power arguably unmatched elsewhere in his music.

Peter EötvösPhotograph: Marco Borggreve

With its eight distinct groups – ranging from solo oboe to eight-part brass ensemble – laid out across the extent of the Barbican Hall stage, the LSO unfolded an impressive account of the piece. Unlike Boulez himself, Eötvös opted against any acceleration during the lengthy final of the 15 sections – maintaining an unwavering focus which gave the alternation of plangent brass and glowering percussion real potency. And if those final bars had a hint of the elegiac, it was surely inevitable when the composer can no longer actively be involved in his own music.

Between these works came a second hearing from the LSO this season of The Rite of Spring (1913), now into its second century of existence. For those who found Simon Rattle’s reading a couple of months ago at all self-conscious or underpowered, Eötvös’s take likely came as a welcome corrective. Certainly there was no lack of the ominous or emphatic as ‘The Adoration of the Earth’ built to its violent central climax, with the ‘Games of the Rival Tribes’ making a seismic impression capped by a pulsating ‘Dance of the Earth’. As to part two, ‘The Sacrifice’, its inward opening sections evinced no lack of tension such that the ‘Glorification of the Chosen One’ made a properly startling impression, and how good that the ‘Ritual of the Ancestors’ avoided even a hint of balletic overkill. Nor did the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ suffer from the rhythmic caution with which many interpreters – doubtless goaded by Stravinsky’s ‘bet-hedging’ in his own recorded accounts – emasculate its stark outlines and implacable charge prior to its heart-stopping final gestures. A truly memorable performance and also another successful showing for the LSO/Eötvös partnership.

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