Prom 51: 29th August 2001 – Boulez

Pierre Boulez
Photographer: Charlotte Oswald/Marion Kalter

Accompaniment to a Film Scene, Op.34
Le visage nuptial*
Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Françoise Pollet (soprano)*
Katharina Kammerloher (mezzo-soprano)*
Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
László Polgar (bass)
Sandor Eles (speaker)

BBC Singers (women’s voices)*
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez

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Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Although its a quarter-century since Pierre Boulez presided over the BBC Symphony Orchestra, memories of that era, even among those not actually present, emerge whenever he returns to the orchestra, not least at the Proms. Indeed, this concert, combining classic scores from the early twentieth-century with one of his own works, was very nearly a typical Boulez programme of that time.

’Very nearly’ because Le visage nuptial was not a piece Boulez performed during his tenure, or anywhere else much for that matter. Written as a chamber song-cycle in 1946 and expanded into a choral cantata six years later, its technical complexity ensured only a handful of airings. Boulez carried out a fundamental revision, completed in 1989, and the result is one of his most expansive and expressive scores. René Char’s verse, charting the emergence, intensification and dissolution of a relationship in recklessly imaginative terms, is treated to music visceral yet elusive: its emotional essence made powerful through its very intangibility.

No other Boulez score with a comparable evolutionary history has such a wide stylistic range. The motivic density recalls the Second Viennese School side of his musical conscience, the refined sensuousness of sound of later Debussy, though with a richness of texture that owes something to the advanced modality of Messiaen. Paradoxically, what we hear now is something that the young Boulez likely envisaged but struggled to realise; music which only became possible as he turned to articulating the Modernist polemic in sound rather than ideas.

Solo singing was persuasive, with Françoise Pollet repeating her memorable 1995 account at the Barbican, and Katharina Kammerloher among the latest in a succession of singers equipped with a tonal purity and precision ideal for Boulez. The women of the BBC Singers coped ably with a part whose intonational difficulties are formidable, while Boulez galvanised the BBCSO into playing of expressive immediacy if not always absolute refinement. The conviction felt at this definitive version’s 1989 premiere, that this is Boulez’s most ’complete’ musical statement, was largely reinforced.

Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene made a heady, provocative curtain-raiser. This fluid eight-minute masterpiece freely revisits the imaginative intensity of the composer’s Expressionist phase through the rational process of the twelve-note method. Boulez has long championed the work, presenting it with a purposefulness that draws its three continuous sections into a charged whole: the malevolence of ’Threatening Danger’ moving headlong into ’Fear’ so that ’Catastrophe’ is felt as an implosive aftermath. Not such a curtain-raiser after all.

Boulez has also given memorable performances of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, though this was not one of them. A veteran of Prom performances alone, László Polgár was vocally impressive as Bluebeard, if seeming reluctant to pursue interpretative nuance over the course of this emotionally anything-but-static music. As Judith, Michelle DeYoung was imperious, conveying the heightened intensity of the work’s latter stages with ease, though a touch more vulnerability of character would not have come amiss. Sandor Eles delivered the quizzical Prologue with a persuasive combination of bard and conjurer. Boulez brought out clarity and coherence, but also a pervasive disengagement. Musically there were few dull moments, but a parallel sense of immediacy, of involvement in this most subjective of Bartók’s major statements, was largely absent.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Wednesday, 5 September, at 2 o’clock

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