Boulez & Birtwistle

Dérive 2 [UK premiere of 2006 version]
Neruda Madrigales [BBC co-commission: London premiere]

BBC Singers

London Sinfonietta
Susanna Mälkki

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Late-night Proms do not (indeed, have never) come more uncompromising than this and it said much for the performers that their input never for a moment flagged over the course of two substantial works, as it did for the small but ‘audibly attentive’ audience – almost all of whom stayed the course.

The programme opened with what must surely be the definitive version of Pierre Boulez’s Dérive 2. Devotees will recall a 12-minute version from the early 1990s that, reworked at the end of that decade, returned as a substantially larger work – scored for a diverse nonet of wind and strings, plus two percussion – that has been recorded and widely performed. Last year, however, Boulez extended the piece to 45 minutes – making it comparable with other major works of the last 25 years (Répons, … explosante/fixe … and Sur Incises). The starting-point remains the musical anagram derived from the name ‘Sacher’, first utilised over three decades ago and thereafter a mainstay of Boulez’s compositional thinking.

Unlike the brief and crepuscular Dérive 1 (1984), its successor now stands as an elaborate ‘chamber concerto’ that pushes motivic development to the limit. The initial 20 minutes or so are largely unchanged – unfolding as a hectic interweaving of lines that rarely, if ever, lose their initial impetus – for all that the emphasis falls on more rhythmically and harmonically stable writing as the work progresses. The previous close, a series of staggered chords ending on the horn’s A with which the piece had begun, now gives way to a 14-minute ‘slow movement’ in which the densely contrapuntal is replaced by the leisurely polyphonic, and an unforced interplay whose characterful expression and relaxed intensity is more than a little redolent of Carter’s recent instrumental writing (appropriately so in a work that began as an 80th-birthday homage to the American master). The final 10 minutes are given over to a ‘finale’ whose accelerating velocity is effected with almost Sibelian inevitability. As it now concludes, moreover, the work has the most exhilarating (dare one say affirmative?) ending of any that Boulez has written – a triumph of extended formal organisation sublimated into expressive consistency.

This positive impression was in large part due to the quality of the performance, in which the London Sinfonietta responded with alacrity to the clear but never inflexible direction of Susanna Mälkki – a conductor whose Proms debut could have not have been more auspicious. Nor was she for a moment fazed by the demands of co-ordination between voices and instruments posed by “Neruda Madrigales” (2005), Harrison Birtwistle’s most recent large-scale work and wholly typical in its imaginative obliqueness.

Although the text is that of Pablo Neruda’s “Oda al doble otoño” (Ode to the Double Autumn), this could in no way be described as a ‘setting’ as such. Yet the poem’s four stanzas are directly embodied in the music’s formal follow-through – with its relative contrasts of textural complexity and expressive impact. Anyone anticipating the unremitting quality of the Sappho-based “ … agm …”, would have been disappointed, as the present work finds Birtwistle’s vocal writing at its most subtle – certain of the textures even recalling the Morton Feldman influence that surfaced in his music during the early 1970s. Descriptive elements are minimal, though it would be hard to overlook the image of the axe splitting the trunk at the climax of the third section and which returns to effect the work’s precipitate close. Instrumentally, the ensemble – with foursomes of woodwind (no strings) and a wonderfully astringent ‘continuo’ of harp, marimba and cimbalom – has a Monteverdian richness while setting the voices in dramatic relief as the words require. Others have responded more directly to the sensuous warmth of Neruda’s poetry, but few have tapped into its troubled landscape with such finely-honed eloquence.

In its intriguing overhaul of Birtwistlian traits, “Neruda Madrigales” might well offer a foretaste of “The Minotaur”, due to be premiered at The Royal opera (Covent Garden) next April. If not, it still stands among the most imposing of the composer’s works from the last decade, and the combined forces of the BBC Singers and London Sinfonietta brought out the sonorous allure behind its sombre exterior. Another fine showing for Mälkki, who is clearly among the most able of younger conductors when it comes to elucidating the complexity of such pieces.

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