A Richly Enlightening Celebration of Boulez at The Barbican


  Debussy, Boulez, Robin, and Pintscher: Sophie Cherrier (flute), Nicolas Crosse (double bass), Michael Barenboim (violin), Arshia Cont and Franck Rossi (IRCAM electronics), Ensemble Intercontemporain, Matthias Pintscher (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 28.4.2015 (MB)

BoulezMémoriale (… explosante-fixe … Originel)
Yann RobinAsymétriades
Matthias PintscherChoc (Monumento IV)
Boulezsur Incises
1 and 2


The Barbican’s Boulez celebrations have not been accorded so high a profile as those in many other European cities. (Click here for a sad report on the dire situation across the Atlantic. The New York Philharmonic, of all orchestras, appears to be ignoring its erstwhile Music Director completely.) Still, each has been welcome, this third, concluding instalment included.

No composer, even Webern, stands closer to Boulez than Debussy. His Syrinx seems to hover presciently over a good few of Boulez’s pieces, his early Sonatine included – and also Mémoriale, which would follow. Sophie Cherrier was the excellent flautist for both pieces. She offered what sounded, lapsing into ‘national’ cliché, a ‘French’ sound, pure and clear, unencumbered with excessive vibrato. Debussy’s brief solo work thus seemed both to hark back to Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and forward to Mémoriale, which emerged almost as a continuation. In this context, the Ensemble Intercontemporain sounded initially rather as a refraction of the solo part, the ensemble itself emerging into its own identity. Matthias Pintscher ensured a performance that was eminently precise, that precision, like Boulez’s own, never an end in itself, but as a tool of musical expression. This was an exquisite fantasy, of somewhat different, perhaps less sweet, flavour than that offered recently by Karl-Heinz Schütz, the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, but no less welcome. One of the pleasures of such a year – and let us hope that it does not remain a single year – has been to hear different interpretative approaches to Boulez’s music.

Yann Robin’s 2014 Asymétriades followed, Nicolas Crosse the double bass soloist. It was the first time I had heard any of Robin’s music; I hope it will not be the last. Although it is easier to point to contrasts with Boulez’s music, one thing that struck me was how the ensemble sound emerged from the double bass, just as I had heard it do from the flute in Mémoriale. Helmut Lachenmann’s example offered another mental comparison: not that this sounded ‘like’ Lachenmann’s music, but almost as if it presented itself very much ‘after’ the German composer’s deconstruction and reconstruction of instrumental performance. The sounds we heard, doubtless unorthodox to conservative ears, owed much to what some still call ‘extended techniques’, but they registered with such confidence as to render such a term, or indeed such a thought, quite anachronistic. That said, I was astonished to hear some of the sounds I heard coming from the ensemble I saw; I often could not say, on a first hearing, what came from where. If such be a secret of orchestration, then it seemed to have been fully mastered. Asymétriades was as visceral as Mémoriale sounded æthereal; it seemed very much an urban landscape and drama, although it should certainly not be reduced to such terms. Varèse, nevertheless, sprang to mind – albeit with very new means. Fast, frenetic, and not without fun, the work’s asymmetries thrilled and confounded. Insofar as I could tell, the performances were superb, not least that of the astoundingly brilliant Crosse. The EIC is as fortunate to have him as it is to have Cherrier.

Pintscher followed that piece with his own 1996 Choc (Monumento IV). Again, there was great contrast to be heard; whilst not without its structurally defining eruptions, nor indeed the éclat common to Robin and, definitively, to Boulez, this was sonically much more of a tapestry, perhaps somewhat in Boulez’s line. However, the sense of, as Pintscher has put it, ‘camouflaging sounds’ was again a thread in common with the preceding work, at least. It is, he was quoted in the programme as having said, ‘part of my compositional thinking, so that one can never exactly be sure who is playing or whether the sound is coming from.’ It needs, of course, an ensemble of the excellence of that founded by Boulez to accomplish that, just as it does in the alchemy of Richard Strauss; that it received here, in a splendidly incisive performance.

… which brings us to sur Incises. The expansion inherent – and discovered – in so much of Boulez’s material is emphatically a conceptual foundation of the work here, as much visually in the layout for three pianos, three percussionists, and three harps, as in this most beguiling dramatic tapestry. Sounding almost decadently Romantic, the performance never lost its sure structural foundation; it scintillated in the best – and proper – sense. The composer’s sheer delight in the sound of three pianos registered, as if one were hearing a multi-dimensional instrument, and performance – which indeed is part of the point. What one might call Boulez’s toccata tendency engaged with symmetries that were not fearful but apparently fearless: testament to performance as well as to work.

As a welcome post-concert treat, those of us who wished were invited to a performance of Anthèmes 1 and Anthèmes 2 by Michael Barenboim, the latter with IRCAM electronics. I have written recently about a Barenboim performance of Anthèmes 2; this was perhaps still more confident, and certainly had one listening with new ears in new context. It was fascinating to hear the earlier ‘version’, if one may term it that – and I think in context one may – and to reflect on the expansion – not unlike that of Incises into sur Incises – of a solo work that inevitably has one think of Bach as surely as Mémoriale does of Syrinx. That, and Barenboim’s excellent performance, certainly heightened structural awareness, whilst the sonic tapestry seemed almost, doubtless misleadingly, to take care of itself. Such, after all, is part of the business of performance; once again, art concealed art and yet never forgot its performative nature, just as Boulez had intended when emphatically returning to electronic music in Répons. More on that, later in the year, from Salzburg…

Mark Berry


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