Prom 33: A Hero Returns

Composer Portrait – Pierre Boulez

Dérive I
Mémoriale (… explosante-fixe … Originel)

Pierre Boulez in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Philippa Davies (flute)
Composers’ Ensemble
Peter Wiegold

14 / 8 / 2002, Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Prom 33

Le visage nuptial
Le soleil des eaux
Petrushka (original 1911 version)

Françoise Pollet (soprano)
Susan Parry (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 14 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

With neither castanets nor an Old Testament prophet in sight, Pierre Boulez’s Prom with the BBCSO asserted his own thesis, that of twentieth-century Modernism and – without any sense of arrogance – his own centrality to it. Two much-revised choral works from the days of his pioneering youth, now some fifty years old and sounding like established classics, were framed by seminal masterpieces from earlier in the century by Varèse and Stravinsky. Both these composers had inspired and influenced Boulez, who in turn has championed their work as a conductor; the final link being Stravinsky’s own absorption of Boulez’s aesthetic in late works such as Movements and Variations.

In some ways it is difficult to categorise Le visage nuptial as an early score, since Boulez’s revision of it in the late ’80s (its third version) is so drastic as to amount to virtually a different piece. The stiffness and severity of the previous form (early ’50s) is here replaced by sensuous and extraordinarily refined writing which is in every respect the result of his many years’ experience conducting central twentieth-century repertory, above all the music of Debussy.

A setting for soprano, mezzo-soprano, female chorus and large orchestra of the febrile texts of surrealist poet René Char, Le visage nuptial emerges as a single musical impulse constantly twisting itself into ever-new shapes and textures. Like all great music it has the characteristic that not one bar could be predicted ahead of itself, yet afterwards it is impossible to imagine that the music could have gone in any other way. It is also perhaps Boulez’s most sheerly beautiful score.

This was its second Proms performance in two seasons – quite a feat. The performance could scarcely have been more authoritative. Françoise Pollet and Susan Parry, Boulez veterans both, were timbrally a perfect match and their many duets often created the illusion of coming from a single meta-voice. Sometimes the orchestral and choral forces overwhelmed them, but this effect of individual voices merging into and out of a multi-textured whole is central to the piece. The many in-folded subtleties of the orchestral parts were marvellously realised by the BBCSO with the ease and confidence of an orchestra that has this music in its core repertoire. Likewise the BBC Singers, understandably Boulez’s preferred chorus in this and other works of his. The dark ebbing away of the final bars was unforgettably realised.

After the interval, we heard Le soleil des eaux, Boulez’s other setting of Char, this one obtaining its final version much earlier, in 1965. The difference in the soundworld is striking. Compared to Le visage nuptial, the music is altogether more spare and crystalline in the first movement and more violently Expressionist in the second. Pollet realised the often-unaccompanied soprano line with uncannily secure pitching of the wide intervals and angular expression. Again Symphony and Singers achieved a well-nigh-perfect realisation under the composer.

Verse’s Intégrales for 11 instruments opened the concert and functioned as a kind of extended fanfare. Although Boulez’s trademark incisiveness and clarity were much in evidence, this was an altogether suppler, less granite-like interpretation than his earlier self would have countenanced.

Boulez’s view of Petrushka (as usual the 1911 version) is one of the classic interpretations of our time; his clarification of the rhythmic scansion of the music, particularly in the first and fourth scenes where many conductors offer an atmospheric haze, came across vividly. Boulez has relaxed into this music and now takes the ’cheap’ fairground tunes of the inner scenes at consistently slower tempi than of yore – the younger Boulez hurried through them as if embarrassed by such lowbrow material.

It has to be said that as Boulez now routinely works with the world’s super-orchestras, his flawless vision of twentieth-century masterworks is not always best realised by orchestras a little lower down the food chain. For all the collective commitment of the BBCSO the solo playing was sometimes not of the very highest standard and the brass playing in particular lacked finesse. Nonetheless, it was Boulez’s evening and he was given a hero’s welcome.

At the pre-concert “Composer Portrait” in the V & A, we encountered Boulez in person with his familiar mix of the genial and the cerebral, and two of his pieces interspersed the chat given under the precise and fluid direction of Peter Wiegold. Dérive I is a study in submerged, aquatic sonorities; in this rendition it sounded a more aggressive, volatile work than usual. Mémoriale for solo flute and ensemble is one of Boulez’s most delicate and diaphanous creations. Philippa Davies gave a sensitive performance of the solo part, seemingly unfazed by having the composer sat behind her following the score – a nerve-wracking prospect if ever there was one.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast of Prom 33 on Monday, 19 August, at 2 o’clock

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