Prom 17: Exquisite Late-Night Beethoven and Boulez at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 17: Beethoven and Boulez,Hilary Summers (contralto), Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 26.7.2012 (MB)

Beethoven:  Quintet for piano and wind instruments in E-flat major, op.16
Boulez:  Le Marteau sans maître

Guy Eshed (flute)
Ramón Ortega Quero (oboe)
Shirley Brill (clarinet)
Juan Antonio Jiménez (horn)
Keynep Koyluoglu (bassoon)
Ori Kam (viola)
Caroline Delume (guitar)
Bishara Harouni (piano)
Adrian Salloum (xylorimba)
Pedro Manel Torrejón González (vibraphone)
Noya Schleien (percussion)

It was a splendid idea to have a late-night Prom devoted to Boulez and Beethoven, as if an appendix to the ‘main business’ of the early evening series. ‘Appendix’ is the wrong word, I am sure, since this was an enjoyable concert in its own right, and any performance including Le Marteau sans maître can hardly be considered light fare, let alone peripheral. It was a pity, of course, that Pierre Boulez was unable to travel to conduct what remains perhaps his single most celebrated work, but François-Xavier Roth proved an able replacement.

Mozart’s voice was very much to the fore during the performance of Beethoven’s op.16 Quintet, for piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. The introduction to the first movement possessed considerable breadth, recalling a good number of Mozartian examples, followed by an ebullient account of the main part of the movement which never tipped into aggression. Beethoven’s gorgeous harmonies were relished without exaggeration. The new life of the coda – a truly Beethovenian touch, even in 1796 – was properly felt. Each of the soloists contributed beautifully to the Andante cantabile. Perhaps most notable of all was the limpid horn-playing of Juan Antonio Jiménez, but this was a fine collection of soloists. The tempo was well chosen, a true slow movement, with no fashionable rushing. If there were occasions when the greater line was not always quite so apparent as it might have been, the playing itself remained delectable. The finale was equally post-Mozartian, echoing not only Mozart’s own quintet for the same forces but works such as the E-flat major piano concerto, KV 482. Beethoven did not always find it possible – or even desirable – to emulate Mozart’s (apparent) super-human ease, but he did here, as did the performance. Even syncopations were of Mozart’s ilk: catchy, loving even, rather than abrupt, let alone rupturing.

An entirely different set of musicians – there is no overlap in instrumentation – was joined by Hilary Summers and François-Xavier Roth for Le Marteau sans maître. When I have heard the work recently, I have been struck by its metamorphosis into ‘classic’, maybe even ‘classical’, status. No longer an object of controversy, it stands not unlike, say, Pierrot lunaire, which we shall hear later in the Proms season, from Christine Schäfer and the Nash Ensemble. Yet, whereas Pierre’s ghost of Pierrot had been very much to be heard haunting the composer’s own 2010 Berlin performance with musicians from the Divan, Roth’s Schoenbergian precursor, perhaps especially during the first movement, seemed to be the brittler, more neo-Classical, Serenade, op.24. Again, as the work becomes ever more part of the repertoire, perhaps even of Boulez’s ‘museum’, different interpreters will find different things to say about it, different aspects to draw out. (Incidentally, is it not time that London had another performance of the magnificent Serenade? I have never even heard it ‘live’.) The opening of the second movement, ‘Commentaire I de “Bourreaux de solitude”,’ came as quite a contrast, delicate, quasi-African sonorities to the fore, with rhythmic structure underpinned by a perhaps surprisingly old-style – think of Boulez’s earlier recordings – post-Webern pointillism. Percussion came to sound more ‘percussive’, as it were, than we have become used to in the composer’s recent performances; Guy Eshed’s ravishing flute both softened and heightened the effect. Summers’s contralto proved not only deep but finely shaded; there is something very singular about her vocal quality, which suits this music admirably. At times, especially higher in her range, it proved almost bell-like. Her duets with Eshed were particularly to be relished, she equally instrumental, he equally vocal. Ori Kam’s account of the viola part once again – he also performed in that Berlin concert – made one forget how fiendishly difficult Boulez’s writing is; Kam almost made it sound like Mozart, an intriguing connection thereby made with the Beethoven quintet. Occasionally I wondered whether Roth’s direction might have benefited from greater momentum, but there was no justification whatsoever for the continual flight from the hall of members of the audience. What were they expecting? And why did some wait until the ninth, final movement to leave? Summers was very much part of the instrumental ensemble by that stage, her timbre of great assistance here, her role as ‘soloist’ almost supplanted by Eshed’s flute upon its entry, which is as it should be.

Mark Berry