Peter Eőtvős Leads the LSO’s Fine 90th Birthday Tribute to Pierre Boulez

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Boulez and Stravinsky: London Symphony Orchestra, Peter Eőtvős (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 23.4.2015 (MB)

BoulezLivre pour cordes
StravinskyThe Rite of Spring
BoulezRituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna


Although, so far as I know, he has not ever held a formal position with the London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez has been a regular visitor to the orchestra; indeed, I have written more than once on his visits here. Not the least of their collaborations was Boulez’s first Complete Webern (the second more ‘complete’, including many of the works without opus numbers), a recording project which can safely be said to be ‘historic’ in the best sense of forever having changed public understanding of the composer’s work – arguably Boulez’s as well as Webern’s. Now that Boulez’s conducting days appear to be behind him – and if he were only a conductor, he would surely still be considered one of the most significant forces in New Music, as some of us might still, quaintly, call it – it fell to Peter Eőtvős to conduct the LSO’s ninetieth-birthday tribute. This was no mere second best, but a fascinating, provocative concert in its own right, in some senses very much in line with Boulez’s own work, in some senses going fascinatingly beyond, even coming into fruitful conflict. Just, then, as it should have been.

 First up was Boulez’s Livre pour cordes, which I had heard recently in a very different performance from the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim. Here there was less Viennese sweetness – I suspect that the very different acoustics of Berlin’s Philharmonie and London’s Barbican Hall will have had something to do with that too – and indeed, the opening of the first movement was decidedly un-easy, even neo-expressionist. In general, Boulez’s music here sounded much closer to Webern, in particular to his op.5 Five Movements, and I also found it sounded closer to the original work for string quartet, if still nevertheless impossible to reduce to its origins. Perhaps surprisingly, then, a work for strings sounded more like a work expressly for strings from the LSO than it did even from the VPO. Eőtvős shared Barenboim’s taste for musical drama, but here it seemed almost to be ‘after’ Schoenberg’s op.34, Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene.

 Too often nowadays, we have cause to complain about performances that treat The Rite of Spring as a mere orchestral showpiece. That is testament in part, of course, to the rise in playing standards; it would be foolish to try to make that opening bassoon solo less technically secure, out of misguided concern for ‘authenticity’, but the tight-rope is now undoubtedly less of a challenge to today’s excellent players, such as tonight’s Daniel Jemison. But it is also a matter of conductors who fail to convey, perhaps even to appreciate, what can and must still shock in this extraordinary score. Eőtvős is certainly not one of them; nor was Boulez. However, whereas Boulez, the last time I heard him conduct the work, had tended to reveal often surprising affinities with Wagner, even Mahler, this was perhaps the most brazenly modernistic account I have heard in the flesh. An incredibly bleak, rather slow opening intrigued. Flexibility of tempo, however, led us inexorably towards that necessary – ‘necessity’ was a thought that often occurred to me – teeming of life, which threatened more than it promised hope. Playing was fierce, precise, abrasive in the best sense, but not without melancholy or, especially from the wind, a Petrushka-like ‘Russianness’. Divided violins paid dividends too: not, I felt, out of concern for ‘correctness’, but in order to heighten the strange, utterly compelling sense of chamber-like cooperation and conversation between different sections and indeed different parts within sections. Throughout, Stravinsky’s cellular technique was audibly, meaningfully apparent, emphasising just how different his concerns were from those of the Austro-German ‘mainstream’. What particularly fascinated, was how, delivered as it was, perhaps not coincidentally, with strikingly Boulezian gesture and economy, Eőtvős’s interpretation seemed to look forward, not only to late Stravinsky and indeed to the post-war avant garde, but even to the decidedly non-Boulezian Stravinsky of the 1920s and ’30s: Symphonies of Wind Instruments, yes, but also the neo-Classical works. Hiératique, then, to borrow a marking from one of Boulez’s Notations, but not necessarily in the way he meant it. The controlled delirium – a Boulezian idea, if ever there were one – of the ‘Procession of the Sage’ and the weird mystery of the Sage himself were truly shocking: if you will pardon the cliché, it really did feel as if I were hearing the work for the first time.

 The Second Part sounded wonderfully world-weary: perhaps, here, there was a little more of the Wagnerian, even Parsifalian, to Eőtvős’s reading. (Or perhaps I was projecting; it probably does not matter too much.) The sense hereafter of tragic necessity was overwhelming. Balancing of instruments was quite remarkable; for instance, the strangeness of an early duet for violin and flute, which seemed like an eerie, substantially wilder premonition of something from later in the composer’s career. (It really would be fascinating to hear Eőtvős in Stravinsky at his most polemically neo-Classical.) The approach and reality of sacrifice were brutal, hysterical: terrifying. Musical process guaranteed the dramatic feeling of inevitability. And yet, there was room for caprice too. That, as Webern pointed out in The Path to the New Music, is where art comes in, and we should add performance to composition in that respect. ‘To develop everything … from one principal idea! That is the strongest unity… But in what form? That is where art comes in!’

 It was something of a revelation to hear Rituel: in memoriam Bruno Maderna in the aftermath of The Rite. It was certainly hiératique again. Melodic lines seemed to find their lineage in Stravinsky as much as in Debussy and Messiaen. They also spoke of and with Boulez’s own voice, seemingly echoing from as far back as the piano Notations, but also looking forward to the orchestral version. The emotional weight was reminiscent of Boulez’s Mahler, never mistaking sentiment for sentimentality, and all the heavier for it. In this great profession of grief, a post-Messiaen processional took its course, again with the utmost inevitability. The LSO players, one felt, could almost, not quite, have managed the performance for themselves; Eőtvős wisely restricted his contributions to when they were necessary. There was no more showmanship to his conducting than to Boulez; and yet, in both cases, true ‘individuality’ of conception and voice resounded all the more strongly. Spatial concerns pointed towards Répons; this, one felt, was Boulez and perhaps Eőtvős too at their most ‘religious’: quite different from the overt religiosity of Messiaen or Stockhausen, but no less powerful, no less ‘real’. My immediate reaction was to wish to hear the work performed again. Let us hope, then, that this year’s performances will prove no anniversary flash in the pan.

Mark Berry

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