Sur Incises

Sur Incises
Four Russian Peasant Songs
Les noces

Catrin Wyn-Davies (soprano)
Hilary Summers (contralto)
Toby Spence (tenor)
Tigran Martirossian (bass)

BBC Singers

Ensemble Intercontemporain
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The opportunity to ‘bring South’ performances from the Edinburgh Festival paid off handsomely in this Prom pairing of major works by composers who were sometime colleagues. A veritable showcase, too, for Ensemble Intercontemporain – many of its members hardly look old enough to remember its founding 28 years ago, and whose attentiveness to Pierre Boulez’s still incredibly agile direction exuded commitment of the highest degree; in particular, the trio of pianists who excelled in the coruscating passagework and resonating sonorities of one of Boulez’s most distinctive recent works.

Completed in 1998, and taking its cue in all respects musical from the short piano piece Incises of four years earlier, Sur Incises might be likened to an aural hall of mirrors: both in the symmetrical scoring for three each of pianos, harps and percussion; and in the precision with which the multiplicityof resonance is reflected between the instruments – whether singly, together or as an ensemble.

At 36 minutes (Boulez’s performances seem to shed around a minute each time), the work fits in with the series of substantial pieces completed in the wake of Répons. Yet for all the intricate complexity of its sub-structure, Sur Incises pursues a relatively straightforward trajectory. After a lengthy, speculative introduction, the music bursts into a toccata of hair-raising velocity – after which, it focuses on a sequence of variants on these extremes of sound and motion. Despite an accumulation of textures towards the culmination, goal-directed progress is illusory – making the final retreat into ‘ringing’ silence, with its stark abstraction of the ending of Les noces, all the more inevitable.

Which made programming the two work in harness an inspired and hardly surprising move. While the latter’s melodic material is derived from church and folk-music sources, Stravinsky eschews ethno-musicological consistency. What results is a work in which emotional distance between the subject and its rendering in music is carried to new lengths. Such considerations should be seen from the perspective of Stravinsky the émigré: portraying an event – a traditional Russian wedding – that he could no longer witness directly; in a language – Russian – that Western audiences could not easily comprehend; through a form – four chronological but expressively uniform tableaux – that separates what is seen from what is experienced. All of which makes Les noces wholly ‘other’ in terms of its scenic representation and expressive potency, and iconic in its innate yet idealised Russian-ness.

While there was not a great deal of overt Russian-ness in this account, its synchronicity between pianos and percussion – and between instruments and voices – was expertly but not at all clinically judged. A few choral entries in the first two scenes felt tentative: thereafter, the performance gained steadily in rhythmic dynamism as it reached the bridegroom’s apostrophising of his bride – followed by the bell-evoking postlude (in which Boulez still seems intent on removing the three-beat bar prior to the series of bell strokes, following a memorable set-to with Stravinsky on film 40 years ago). Hilary Summers’s unusually characterful contralto was the pick of the soloists, but all four contributed lustily to a performance which amply reaffirmed the work among Stravinsky’s greatest.

As a shock-absorber, Stravinsky’s Four Russian Peasant Songs from around World War One – here sounding more spontaneous than in the curious 1954 reworking with horn-quartet accompaniment, and in which the BBC Singers gave their all to these brief encapsulations of mood and atmosphere which – as Webern, no less, observed at an early performance – are so much more than miniatures.

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