Theatricality and Complexity Communicated with Thoroughness and Clarity at the Proms

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 36: Boulez, Ravel, Stravinsky: Marc-André Hamelin (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 12.8.2015 (LJ)

Boulez Figures – Doubles – Primses
Ravel Frontispice (orch. Boulez)
Ravel  Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Stravinsky The Firebird (complete ballet).

Before going to this Prom I went into the Science Museum for their exhibition Revelations: Experiments in Photography (running until 13th September). Nothing could have prepared my mind-set better than a display of works tracing the influence of early scientific photography on modern and contemporary art. Whilst Arthur Clive Banfield’s ‘The Life History of a Splash’ (c.1905) captured the incremental process of a drop of milk hitting a still pool of water in a series of black and white images reflected the accuracy and detail of the three Modernist composers; images taken from Man Ray’s series entitled ‘L’Électricité’ offered a snapshot of the extraordinary virtuosity of the performers (BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth, and pianist Marc-André Hamelin). Lastly, the final piece of the exhibition, Ori Gersht’s ‘Blow Up No. 1’ (2007) with its explosiveness, vibrancy, and immediacy offers one a photographic analogy for this Prom.

During the interval, a fellow Proms goer said to me: ‘I didn’t get that at all; it was like a nightmare, what was it supposed to mean?’ This question followed Boulez’s Figures – Doubles – Prismes; a dense piece where Boulez presents an idea (figure) immediately setting up possibilities for variations (double), and a peppering of harmonic extensions and refractions (prisme). Whilst I struggled to answer the ‘what does it mean’ part to that response, another member sitting two seats across sighed ‘it was too difficult for me’. These reflections made me think: is Boulez’s music off-putting and why; is that a good thing or a failed attempt to communicate; could anyone honestly say that they enjoyed the music? With these questions in mind, I felt that I was getting close to the illusive centre of Boulez’s music. Is this post-war, avant-garde, labyrinthine maze of desperate sounds a musical clenched fist metonymical of the ineffability of art? For the composer who emphatically stated “All the art of the past must be destroyed” in 1971, like numerous Modernist poets, Boulez strives to ‘make it new’ (to quote Ezra Pound) in each of his works, remarking: “The artists I admire – Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, Berlioz – have not followed tradition but have been able to force tradition to follow them. We need to restore the spirit of irreverence in music”. Such irreverence manifests itself in complex works exposing Boulez’s unparalleled ear for sound and dare-devilish behaviour (Messiaen, Boulez’s teacher commented that his pupil was “like a flayed lion”). As Boulez himself said of this composition:

Figures refers to simple elements, sharply characterised by dynamics, violence, softness, slowness, and so forth. These elements can be purely harmonic, or more rhythmically oriented, or purely melodic. They are not themes in the conventional way, but ‘states’ of music being.

A piece as captivating to watch as it is to listen to, seeing the different sections of the BBC Symphony Orchestra converse with such rapt dialogue was spellbinding. François-Xavier Roth kept his orchestra on its toes (with some help from the extensive percussion section), producing a terse, confident sound. Boulez asks us permanently to discover this work, on which last night’s performance gave us a fresh take.

For the second half of the concert, the BBC Symphony Orchestra began with Boulez’s 2007 full orchestration of Ravel’s 1918 Frontispice. Lasting under two minutes, this short enigmatic piece (written at the request of Italian poet and cinema advocate, Ricciotto Canudo), disperses Ravel’s piano original into the woodwind and string sections of the orchestra. This was immediately followed by Ravel’s remarkable Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, composed for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War. Performing Ravel’s logical and inventive work, Marc-André Hamelin retained the sense of composure found in Ravel’s handiwork. As pianist Paul Roberts says: “The composer constructs an object so perfectly honed that the performer is fearful of damaging it”. Handling with care, but not with restraint, Hamelin (unlike Paul Wittgenstein before him) indulged in Ravel’s jazz-influenced rhythms and harmonies. His enjoyment was transmitted to the audience who were stunned by Hamelin’s performance. Throughout the piece, Ravel couples triple and duple rhythms allowing him to compose a solo part with “the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands”. Hamelin was masterful when playing the melody of the middle slow movement in 3/4 time over its own arpeggio accompaniment in 9/8.

As an encore, Hamelin turned to the magician of impressionistic music, performing Claude Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau (1905), the first of three pieces for piano from the first volume of Images. Quintessential Debussy, the non-functional harmony, ambiguous key signatures and non-diatonic tonality make this work sound as though it has been carved out of elaborate arabesques and sprayed with intoxicating oriental perfumes. Performed andantino molto with a recurring melody of A flat, F, E flat accompanied by a set of chords on the right hand, Hamelin evoked the sense of light reflecting on the surface of a glassy river: stillness contrasts with the moving undercurrent of the water, charting the different stages of its journey towards ‘la mer’.

Finally, Stravinsky’s The Firebird with its range of brooding, magical, and cacophonous sounds, tells the tale of Kashchei the Deathless along with a mythical Firebird, most probably derived from Yakov Polonsky’s popular nineteenth century verse: ‘A Winter’s Journey’. Composed in 1909-10, the music scene was held in the grip of twelve-note music, Leo Tolstoy passed away marking the demise of the grand narrative and Kafka was writing his psychoanalytical masterpieces: The Trial and Metamorphoses. Artistically, perspective was being cut-up and reassembled, throwing a new light on a fragmentary society. Describing the Cubist painters in 1913, Guillaume Apollinaire refers to the impossible beauty of the “infinite universe”. With its intergalactic reach, The Firebird, as novelist Henri Ghéon suggests, is “the most exquisite marvel of equilibrium that we have ever imagined between sounds, movements and forms”. At the Sudden appearance of Ivan Tsarevich, Andrew Antcliff on French horn and Richard Hosford on clarinet played with tenderness and sincerity. Followed by Khorovod (Round Dance) of the princesses, oboist Richard Simpson was delicate and melodious and along with the flute section, evoked the wondrousness of the scene. The whole orchestra enlivened with the appearance of Kashchei’s monster-guardians and capped the piece with an unforgettable melody, the brass section excelling in its might. Hearing fellow audience members humming the last bars as they left the Royal Albert Hall is testimony to the pleasure of the evening.

Lucy Jeffery

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