Prom 17: Late-night Beethoven & Boulez – Le marteau sans maître

Quintet in E flat for Piano and Wind, Op.16
Le marteau sans maître

Hilary Summers (contralto)

Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: Guy Eshad (flutes), Ramón Ortega Quero (oboe), Shirley Brill (clarinet), Zeynep Koyluoglu (bassoon), Juan Antonio Jiménez (horn), Ori Kam (viola), Caroline Delume (guitar), Adrian Salloum (xylorimba), Pedro Manuel Torrejón González (vibraphone), Noya Schleien (percussion ) & Bishara Harouni (piano)

François-Xavier Roth [Le marteau sans maître]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 July, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

François-Xavier Roth. Photograph: Celine GaudierComing just before the final concert in its Beethoven symphony cycle, it was fitting that this late-night Prom from members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra focussed on the two composers whose music has provided stimulating contrasts over its course: not an exercise in specious historical inevitability so much as an explication of what music could be at two distinct junctures.

Whether Beethoven’s Piano and Wind Quintet (1796) – oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon – was a fully representative choice in this context is debatable, yet it at least gave the orchestra’s wind principals their chance to shine in what is among the most appealing of the composer’s early works. Perhaps more could have been made of its departure from the Mozartean model – the first movement’s slow introduction felt a little temperate, while the Allegro itself was fleet rather than incisive – though the eloquence of the Andante had a delectable poise and the finale was dispatched with bracing but never insistent humour. A highlight was the pianism of Bishara Harouni, melding into the wind sonority with a deftness and sensitivity such as gave especial pleasure.

From here to Pierre Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître (1955) was not so great a leap – whether conceptually or aesthetically – as might have been imagined. Almost the only major work from its composer’s earlier years not to have undergone extensive revision, it remains a touchstone of technical ingenuity placed wholly at the service of heightened musical expression – its settings of and commentaries on three of the surrealist René Char’s most inscrutable yet provocative poems interfolded to a degree that renewed the genre of the song-cycle in an era which might have been thought antithetical to such a genre.

The present account seemed at pains to underline the distinctions between them: hence the tensile motion of ‘L’artisanat furieux’ with its ‘before’ and ‘after’ commentaries, the slow-burning languor of ‘Bourreaux de solitude’ along with its trio of observations of gradually intensifying emotion, and the otherworldly unfolding of ‘Bel edifice et les pressentiments’ with its ‘double’ in which first the text and then the voice itself are sublimated into a hieratic texture of flute and gongs.

Given her association with the piece, the insight and finesse of Hilary Summers’s contribution was to be expected, yet the dedication of the West-Eastern Divan players was as impressive – François-Xavier Roth (it had been intended that Boulez himself would conduct) guiding them through an account whose stark closing bars resounded evocatively around the Royal Albert Hall acoustic.

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