Pierre Boulez Celebrated at 90 Through a BBC Total Immersion Day

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Boulez: Jean-Frédéric Neuburger (piano), Yeree Suh (soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Pablo Rus Broseta and Thierry Fischer (conductors). Barbican Hall, London, 21.3.2015 (MB)

Piano Sonata no.2
Notations I, VII, IV, III, and II
Pli selon pli


The BBC’s Total Immersion series has recently seemed to be running out of steam, offering distinctly underwhelming, and in some cases downright bizarre, repertoire choices. At least it did the right thing here, and honoured in the year of his ninetieth birthday the man who remains not only the single most important Chief Conductor in the history of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but the abiding presence in post-war music (as I suppose we may still, just about, call it). Alas, I was unable to attend the whole day’s events, which included a pair of films and a lecture by Paul Griffiths, but I managed to hear two out of the three concerts, having to forego an LSO St Luke’s performance from the Guildhall New Music Ensemble and David Corkhill (une page d’éphéméride, Anthèmes 1, Mémoriale (‘…expolsante-fixe…’ Originel), Dérive 1, the Sonatine for flute and piano, and the piano Notations).

The first, lunchtime concert gave decent enough but slightly disappointing performances of two works: the Second Piano Sonata and Éclat/Multiples. When it comes to the former work, I have doubtless been spoilt both by Maurizio Pollini’s legendary recording and the experience of thrice having heard him perform it in concert (in Salzburg, Berlin, and London). This was, however, unless I have forgotten something (unlikely in this case, I think), the first time I had heard Éclat/Multiples ‘live’. The Sonata remains of course a monumental challenge to all who approach it, which is not to say that it is ‘unapproachable’, whatever that might mean. I stand in admiration for any pianist who can so much as play the notes and play them relatively convincingly. Those days Boulez long lamented, when new music suffered so greatly from well-meaning yet, in the pejorative sense, amateurish performances – a situation that led directly to his taking up conducting – are long since passed. Jean-Frédéric Neuburger gave a sense of the piece’s concerns, even, though perhaps only if one knew this already, of its celebrated ‘destruction’ of the idea of the sonata. But the white heat of Pollini’s ultra-commitment, his unerring sense and projection of musical drama, above all his ability not only to maintain a musical line even as the work does its damnedest to obliterate it: I struggled to discern them. Range of expression was ultimately somewhat narrow; undoubted virtuosity astonished less than it should. Above all, such, perhaps, is the danger attendant to the work’s transformation from New Music rallying cry into ‘classic’. (Boulez’s persistent warnings concerning museum culture remain as urgent as ever.) Beethoven, after all, is destroyed far more by insufficient performances than by Boulez’s apocalyptic reckoning with the example of the Hammerklavier Sonata.


Éclat/Multiples was conducted by Pablo Rus Broseta, who had replaced François-Xavier Roth at short notice. Gratitude is in order, then, and again, to conduct the piece well enough is no mean achievement. However, of the scintillation that Boulez himself has brought to the work – this was the orchestra that gave its first performance, conducted by the composer, in 1970 –was not altogether present, the BBC SO at times sounding less razor-sharp than ideal. Opposition between ‘striated’ and smooth time was present, yet seemed less urgently generative than one might have hoped for. That said, the sense of losing oneself in time remained quite remarkable: a presentiment, perhaps, of Dérive 2? Moreover, hearing the opening piano cascade after the sonata brought to life both what the works have in common and where they differ. Technique and implications of proliferation are very different in nature, even though but a single section of Multiples having been completed, we must still wait to hear the ‘finished’ work. I say ‘even though’, but the near-endless sense of possibility in serial proliferation is something to which Boulez has often drawn attention. Tantalisingly, we read in a 2010 interview for Universal Edition: ‘I would especially like to finish Éclat/Multiples. That’s one of the works which is almost finished, and, you know, I have practically twice the length of the work as I play it now, and therefore I would like to finish because the concept of the end is already there.’ There is much for us to occupy ourselves with in the meantime, though, not least in the composer’s post-Debussyan liberation – perhaps in this case, even exaltation – of timbre. (Those violas, that basset horn! They are emphatically not ‘mere colour’. Klangfarbenmelodie has continued to develop, to expand its realm of possibilities.) Moreover, as Jonathan Goldman has written, ‘Form, once thought by serial composers such as the young Boulez to be equivalent to the exhaustion of the possibilities of the series (a characteristic of none but a single Boulezian creation, the often-analysed Structures Ia), reveals itself in Boulez’s later works to be an open-ended affair.’

For the evening concert, Thierry Fischer was Roth’s replacement. I assume that he must have conducted Notations and Pli selon pli before; they are hardly the sort of works one conducts for the first time at the drop of a hat. Whatever the truth of that, these were assured performances. I doubt that anything will ever eclipse the memory of Boulez’s extraordinary, Bergian performance of Pli selon pli in London four years ago. But one thing that has struck me recently is the greater willingness of other conductors to perform his work. Daniel Barenboim has, of course, long been a champion; I shall soon be reporting from performances in Berlin. Nor is he alone. However, I wonder whether a perverse consequence of Boulez’s pre-eminence as a conductor has been either reluctance or inability – Why would an orchestra hire X to conduct Boulez, when it might enlist the composer himself? – on the part of other musicians to lead performances of his orchestral music. Fischer’s performances proved assured, a worthy tribute, and the BBC SO was on much better form too.

For those who carp about Boulez’s conducting activities allegedly having taken his attention away from composition – they generally seem not to like his music very much, so it is not immediately clear why they should care – the Notations should stand as a rebuke. Boulez himself has owned that he would have been unable to compose the pieces without the experience of conducting Wagner and Mahler. With every listening, that claim becomes more and more unarguable. The virtuosity in orchestral writing is staggering, in its way as much so as that of Ravel, or indeed Mahler. Such was revealed here in performance; it is remarkable what a difference inclusion of the Seventh Notation now makes to the previous first four. As much as Éclat/Multiples, one hears Boulez as, amongst many other things, a true heir to the Viennese purveyors of Klangfarbenmelodie, Schoenberg as much as Webern. This was perhaps the most ‘Romantic’ reading, not only of that movement, but of the work-in-progress as a whole, I have yet to hear. Mahler, perhaps reimagined by the Schoenberg of op.19 no.6, continued as foundational processional, whilst Boulezian fantasy ignited and – that word again – proliferated above. In retrospect, the Boulez of Pli selon pli, especially some of its later revisions, seemed increasingly his own progenitor here. A somewhat deliberate reading of no.4 had me wondering for a while, but won me round; no more than in the music of the ‘museum’ is there one ‘correct’ way to perform this music. Its openness to interpretation is, and should be, at least as great as its openness to further compositional development. The extraordinary Notation II – everyone’s favourite, so far? – brought the house down, as, in my experience, it always has. It threatens to veer out of control, testing the limits of even the most expert orchestra, yet never quite does so. Again, Mahler reimagined. To quote from that 2010 interview for a second time, ‘There’s the Mahler quotation again, “the material composes for you.”’

Pli selon pli proved, as one would have hoped, a fitting climax. If ever there were a Boulez work that seemed to cry out for the word ‘masterpiece’ it must surely be this. Or Le Marteau sans maître, or Répons, or … But, however, over-used that word, here, once again, it seemed fitting. Arnold Whittall’s description of Boulez’s ‘modern classicism’ seemed once more very much the thing; and yet, this work is not so ‘closed’ as it may seem, emphatic though the closing of the circle at the end of ‘Tombeau’ remains. A quality I am almost tempted to call ‘symphonic’ has always been present in the work, but it seems more and more overwhelming, almost ‘tragically’ so. (Perhaps I remain very much – too much? – under Mahler’s spell? Certainly Boulez’s Mahler has been the revelation in the last generation or so of Mahler performance.) Performance, just as much as study of the score, reveals other possibilities – which may never now be taken up; or which may indeed some day by others, just as Boulez has responded to some of those by his predecesssors. Mallarmé, nevertheless, remains; or as Boulez might have put it, Mallarmé demeure. (Boulez’s analysis of the Rite of Spring, ‘Stravinsky demeure’, is surely as essential to a cellular reading as ever it was.) The transformation of verse into poetry is not the least important process at work here; who knows, were the material to continue to develop, might the ravishing vocal line disappear entirely? That is not to denigrate the excellent contribution of Yeree Suh to the performance. Perhaps less overtly sensual, even erotic, than Boulez’s 2011 Barbara Hannigan, Suh offered a straightforward integrity that was very much her own, and which sounded very much at ease with Fischer’s own approach. There will be further penetrations into the Boulezian labyrinth, into Mallarmé’s sirens, shipwrecks, lava, tombs, and all; in the meantime, this ‘classical’ performance did very well indeed. The dizzying yet now (relatively) stabilised interplay between different formal levels continues to challenge, to beguile, to point to an open future. Serialism demeure.

Mark Berry

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