Boulez’s Répons at the Salzburg Festival: An Unforgettable Experience

19/08/2015

  Salzburg Festival (8) – Boulez: Ensemble Intercontemporain, Andrew Gerzso/Gilbert Nouno (IRCAM electronic realisation), Matthias Pintscher (conductor). Lehrbauhof, Salzburg, 15.8.2015 (MB)

Répons (two performances)

Soloists:
Hidéki Nagano (piano)
Sébastien Vichard (piano)
Frédérique Cambreling (harp)
Luigi Gaggero (cimbalom)
Samuel Favre (vibraphone)
Gilles Durot (xylophone)

And so, the climax of my 2015 visit to Salzburg: my first ever hearing in the flesh of Répons. Sadly, I shall almost certainly never hear it conducted by the composer, save for on his Deutsche Grammophon recording (invaluable, but no replacement for the real thing). However, the superlative Ensemble Intercontemporain did Boulez as proud under Matthias Pintscher as I am sure they would have done the composer himself. To hear a work ‘live’ is always a different matter from hearing a recording, but a work in which spatial considerations are so crucial can only truly be heard like this. At any rate, the Salzburg Festival’s performances, in the Lehrbauhof, will surely be something I shall remember for the rest of my life. Every single performer struck me as contributing something nearly super-human. If I single none of them out, it is because my experience was such that it would be unfair to do so, not because they do not all deserve to be named.

As has often been the case, the work was performed twice. Each ticket had two different placements, enabling one to hear the work – and for once, this is no cliché – anew. Seated behind the orchestra (in section ‘D’) for the first half, I not only found the Introduction considerably sharper, also more ‘orchestral’ in the second half (section ‘A’), something which, I admit, might also have been simply a matter of a second hearing. As the work progressed, lines, sonorities, combinations emerged such as I truly do not think it would have been possible for me to have heard earlier. What also struck me forcefully was not only the – obvious, yet still interesting – thematic kinship with Dérive 2, of which I had had my ‘breakthrough’ hearing from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim earlier in the week. The difference in compositional method and the multiplicity of possibilities, some realised, many more yet to be realised, were no matter of theoretical reflection, not that there is any reason to slight such activity; the seemingly endless possibilities inherent and immanent in the material lived, struggled, sometimes even won out in my ears and in my imagination. Or so I flattered myself – but I do not think that was mere idle self-flattery, for such was genuinely my experience as this rich aural tapestry was spun. (Mention of tapestry has me recall a fleeting thought that Boulez’s late enthusiasm for Szymanowski – he knew some before, I know, but did little about it – may have been ignited here. Fanciful, doubtless, but why not spin a few more connections?)

Drama, just as in, say, an excellent performance of Structures 2, was everywhere: almost as if it could be instantiated in several dimensions at once. (I realise I am speaking nonsense, at least according to one understanding, but nonsense sometimes has its uses.) The truth of Boulez’s claim that his later work would have been inconceivable without his conducting of Wagner and Mahler was triumphantly vindicated; this work-in-progress – we sometimes forget that the score as it stands gives the date, tantalisingly as ‘1981/…’ – is as much a successor to Wagnerian music dramas as Mahler’s symphonies are, albeit forcing open a material tendency to open-endedness that Wagner and Mahler are so adamant to close. On this occasion, Répons seemed emphatically to open a new chapter in the composer’s œuvre. Long accused – unfairly and uncomprehendingly – by those jealous of his extraordinary talent of having taken refuge in his conducting activities, the composer and his IRCAM collaborators, who should always be honoured in any discussion of this work, reimagines not only the relationship between instruments and electronics, but also, in dramatic instrumental form, the time-honoured liturgical responsorial relationship between precentor and choir. Hence the title. Here, lighting – a literally ‘electrical’ response, as it were, to the end of the quasi-expository Introduction, and the entrance of the soloists and electronics – played a structural-dramatic role, just as if we had an intelligent stage director or liturgist on hand.

One example of maintenance of coherence between instrumental and electronic worlds, to which Andrew Gerzso draws attention in his booklet note for the CD release, is that of the soloists’ arpeggiated chords. As the soloists take their turns, so are the chords in turn transformed by electronics, ‘in such a way that the arpeggiated chords are themselves arpeggiated. The overall result of the soloists and the transformed sounds together is that of an arpeggio of an arpeggio of an arpeggio.’ Moreover, the pitches of the successive arpeggiated chords themselves are all ultimately derived from a seven-note vibraphone chord, through familiar operations such as transposition and combination, each instrument taking from another and yet remaining in touch with the first. Oppositions multiply and, in a sense, attract. Meter returns, joining and indeed transforming his earlier works’ opposition between ‘smooth’ (chaotic and irregular) and ‘striated’ (regular, repeated notes) time; so does ‘symmetrical’ harmony. Ornamentation and proliferation – the [Paul] SACHER hexachord ever in the background, not necessarily to be heard – abound.

I quote myself (from the English-language programme note I wrote for this performance) in the preceding paragraph, not because I have run out of things to say. (Honestly!) I do so, because reading those words, that is, almost uncannily, precisely what I heard, albeit within a ‘live’, dramatic, experiential framework, which made the work sound both known and unknown. In the words of Hans Sachs, hero of a work Boulez long wished to conduct and yet which, alas, he never did, ‘Es klang so alt und war doch so neu!’ One will never quite hear the same work twice, of course, in any situation, but the open-endedness of something which yet emphatically remains a ‘musical work’ intensifies the exhilaration and the poignancy of the moment.

Mark Berry

 

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