Boulez, Grime, and Mason at a Proms Saturday Matinée

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom Proms Saturday Matinée 4, Boulez, Grime, and Mason:  London Sinfonietta, Thierry Fischer (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London. 29.8.2015

BoulezMémoriale (‘…explosante-fixe…’ Originel)
Helen GrimeA Cold Spring
Christian MasonOpen to Infinity: A Grain of Sand (United Kingdom premiere)

Michael Cox (flute)
Mark van de Wiel (clarinet)

London Sinfonietta
Thierry Fischer (conductor)

And so, the Proms celebration of Pierre Boulez’s music drew to a close. I have previously lamented the lack of Répons, but otherwise, we have much for which to be grateful. Here, three of Boulez’s works were interspersed with works by two admiring young British composers, Helen Grime and Christian Mason.

First up was Mémoriale, hot on the heels of the Albert Hall performance of …explosante-fixe…. It was interesting to hear the two works in close succession, not least since that experience offered a reminder that the ear can sometimes play tricks: is one hearing electronic sounds or not? Clearly not on this occasion, but I might have guessed so, had I not known otherwise. The flute’s trills, the general contours: all were quite familiar by now; yet of course, they sounded different in a different performance (Michael Cox first among London Sinfonietta equals) and in a very different acoustic, that of Cadogan Hall. The ensemble here seemed to offer something of an aural shadow, reminiscent perhaps of Dialogue de l’ombre double. Boulez’s short piece sounded somewhere in between, or rather somewhere beyond, Debussy and Stravinsky, mediated by hints of the Bergian labyrinth. The horns’ final dying away into nothingness was not the least magical moment.

Helen Grime, in conversation with Tom Service, said how struck she had been, even at music college, by Boulez’s ear for harmony and colour. Her ear is formidable too, in no sense replicating, but happy to admit inspiration. The three movements of A Cold Spring (after a poem by Elizabeth Bishop) offer highly virtuosic writing, each having a featured solo instrument or pair of soloists. The first opens teeming with melody, as if paying updated homage to The Rite of Spring, albeit very much in its own voice. I thought also of Schoenberg – a work such as the First Chamber Symphony – in its melodic profusion, although I am unsure whether such associations are merely my affair. The stiller, second movement (‘Calmo’) brought to me a colouristic hint or two of Birtwistle, perhaps a hint too of a melancholy not entirely dissimilar to his. Dark bass lines (cello and double bass) seem to colour the invention above. Calmness is transformed into something else, prior to a final enchantment, blessed, so it seemed, by all instruments, but perhaps especially the harp. The transition to the third movement is led by the double bass, that movement itself sounding very much as a development of what has gone before, not least in its darkness – melody and harmony, as well as its instrumentation.

In Domaines, the number six is prevalent: the clarinettist, here the excellent Mark van de Wiel, plays from six different stands, each with an original page and a ‘mirror’ thereof, each of those twelve pages having six musical fragments, thus totalling seventy-two in all, ranging in length from forty seconds or so to – temporally speaking, at least – little more than the twinkling of an eye. The collision, navigated by the performer, between ritual theatre and a single instrument’s kaleidoscopic array of colours is not the least of the piece’s claims to drama. And that particular instrument, the clarinet, perhaps inevitably has one listen – and, indeed, watch – mindful of kinship with Birtwistle. Indeed, I could not help but think there was something, whether coincidental or otherwise, of Punch and Judy, albeit suaver, to this performance. One would certainly never have guessed the textual complexity of this assemblage of ‘single’ lines in a performance of such  mesmerising musical theatre. Was Boulez’s aspiration – sorry, not in the Liz Kendall sense – to unendliche Melodie even at this stage perhaps born of Wagner (Parsifal at Bayreuth)? And/or Pelléas? Every so often, there seemed also to be an instrumental, even melodic, reminder of Webern. At any rate, score and performance seemed endlessly generative. The idea of ‘mirrors’ offered other, French resonances, whether with respect to Ravel or even old, Baroque ‘doubles’. One could hear, or fancy one heard, such connections, but this was above all Boulez’s own path, the performer’s, and the listener’s.

Open to Infinity: A Grain of Sand (the title, I assume, inspired by Blake) is the second of Christian Mason’s works dedicated to Boulez, and intended as a tribute. As Mason put it, all three movements were as yet at the ‘grain of sand’ stage, but were open to expansion: a highly Boulezian conception. (Boulez acted as mentor to him at Lucerne.) Another nod to Boulez lies in the use by all fourteen players of crotales, intended as a reference to Le Visage nuptial. In each movement, one can hear, even in a first encounter, the varied working out of the same pitch material (almost Berg-like in its audible presence).  The éclat of the first, ‘In a Grain of Sand’, though it could not be mistaken for Boulez, could certainly be heard as homage. The second, ‘In a Wild Flower’, has almost jazzy inflections: perhaps a touch, dare I suggest it, of Boulez’s would-be antipode, Henze? Whatever the truth of that, there is certainly revealed a keen ear for colour and its relationship to rhythm (which, I admit, could equally be inspired by the orchestral Notations: pure speculation on my part). Dramatically insistent figures characterise the third, ‘In the Palm of Your Hand’, with the London Sinfonietta offering, in a true array of colours, all the performative commitment one would expect.

Eclats/Multiples depends upon split-second decisions from the conductor, not the first and certainly not the last of Boulez’s insistence on the importance of performance. It certainly received a splendid performance from the Sinfonietta and Thierry Fischer. The opening piano éclat announced its Messiaenic inheritance; hearing John Constable, one could almost imagine the ghost of Yvonne Loriod. Such resonances, even echoes, again began to make their own way, however: to construct, perhaps even to destroy, and to suggest further creative-destructive connections (whether thinking of the Second Piano Sonata or the endlessly misquoted interview with Der Spiegel). The illusion and the construction of line familiar from Domaines took on new life in ensemble. The ‘pointillism’ of 1950s serialism has generally been exaggerated, give or take an odd Stockhausen piece; this seemed an object lesson in compositional and performative constructivism from the following decade. (Just, one might say, as in Boulez’s conducting of Webern.) It was a joy to meet in new garb old aural friends from the world of Le Marteau sans maître: to know, with hindsight, where they might lead – or not. Why is this wonderful work not more often performed?

Mark Berry

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