A superbly Imaginative Combination of Debussy and Boulez

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Boulez: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Colin Greenfell (lighting). Royal Festival Hall, London, 4.5.2017. (CC)

BoulezNotation IV for solo piano (1945); Notation IV for orchestra (1978/1984); Notation VII for solo piano (1945); Notation VII for orchestra (1978/1984); Notation II for solo piano (1945); Notation II for orchestra (1978/1984)

DebussyImages – No. 1, Gigues (1912); Images – No. 3, Rondes de printemps (1912); Fantaisie for piano and orchestra; La mer

Salonen’s programming has often been the cause for celebration and praise. This has surely to be the zenith of his inventiveness: Debussy, both familiar and unfamiliar, rubbing shoulders with Boulez (himself heard in two different guises, namely solo piano and orchestral music). The result was more than stimulating. It was involving, educational, and a reminder that Boulez absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Debussy.

If there were more empty seats than one is accustomed to for the Philharmonia, the difference was not too marked. Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays the music of our time with unfailing enthusiasm and sense of intent, as anyone who has experienced him in the Ligeti Etudes will attest. Aimard’s Notation IV was the epitome of accuracy; one noted, in response, the supreme precision of Salonen’s conducting.

For the first half of the concert the piano was situated at the back of the orchestra, illuminated by an intense spotlight in the darkness. Both Aimard and Salonen entered minus the usual applause – the event was about the music, not them. The individual pieces were announced via surtitles. The orchestral versions are more explosions out of the piano versions than arrangements, something most obvious perhaps in Notation VII, which moves from a one-minute piano piece to a six minute-plus orchestral work. The creation of an harmonic field before the orchestral version of the piano right-hand gesture at the opening is but one example of such widenings, expanding here into a macabre processional. One could also hear in the orchestral version of Notation VII links to Debussy’s Gigues, which, in a performance of superb eloquence, had separated Notations IV and VII. In fact, the Debussy almost seemed to grow out of the Boulez.

Perhaps harmonic arrivals could have glowed more in Debussy’s Rondes de printemps, but this remained an impeccably rehearsed account. The final pair of Notations, II in the various iterations, found the gestural explosiveness of the piano version reflected in the post-Bartók brutal writing of the orchestral version, a massively exciting performance that alternately glowed and glowered.

The second half was devoted to Debussy. The rarely-heard Fantaisie for piano and orchestra is an extended piece (longer than La mer, if only by a couple of minutes). Cast in three movements, it dates from 1889/90. Aimard, now more traditionally at the front of the orchestra, gave the most devoted performance this piece could possibly wish for. One hears both Franck (particularly Variations symphoniques) and Fauré in the harmonic language. The piano is not a traditional “soloist”; exchanges between solo and orchestra are always cordial. The languorous oboe and cor anglais solos of the opening movement are memorable, as were Aimard’s perfect trills. Romantic gestures aplenty almost seemed an attempt to balance out the Boulez. Salonen ensured the fragile strings were beautifully sustained in the central Lento e molto espressivo, the movement moving naturally into the Allegro molto finale, itself bright and pointed. It was wonderful to hear this piece – and in such a performance..

Finally, Salonen was on ultra-familiar turf with La mer. No fewer than nine double-basses gave depth to the sound for a magnificently layered reading. Salonen’s own composer’s ear was clearly at work – Boulez had this too – and detail was exemplary. The creamy brass at the first movement’s climax were a particular delight, while the nimble, bright central ‘Jeux de vagues’ was testament to the Philharmonia’s virtuosity. Beginning with very gestural lower strings, the finale, ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’, coupled transparency with exhileration.

Lighting throughout was courtesy of Colin Greenfell, the changes most welcome in the first half and not really necessary in the second: the colouring of the acoustic “sails” over the orchestra blue raised an ironic eyebrow from this reviewer. This was the third of the Salonen/Aimard curated “Inspirations” series (I covered the Tansy Davies/Beethoven/R. Strauss one here). Bartók and Mahler comprise the final one, on Sunday.

Colin Clarke

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