Pierre Boulez Celebrated in Vienna

AustriaAustria Boulez, Ibert, Pintscher, and Debussy: Emmanuel Pahud (flute), ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra / Baldur Brönnimann (conductor). Grosser Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 1.6.2017. (MB)

Boulez – Figures-Doubles-PrismesMémoriale (… explosante-fixe … Originel)
Ibert – Flute Concerto
Pintscher – Osiris
Debussy – La Mer

My present visit to Vienna helpfully – and quite unwittingly, at least at the version of initial planning – takes in the second half, roughly speaking, of the 38th International Musical Festival of the Wiener Konzerthausgesellschaft. A good number of the concerts I shall review here will be part of that festival; and a good number of those will feature music by one of the Konzerthaus’s Honorary Members, the late Pierre Boulez. This concert from Emmanuel Pahud, the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Baldur Brönnimann most certainly did, although I was not entirely convinced that the Boulez pieces themselves were the performative highlights. Not, I hasten to add, that they were not good performances. Perhaps that is actually in itself, ironically, an encouraging sign, for the incorporation of Boulez’s music into the core repertoire now seems unstoppable. We hear these works much more often, nowadays; many more musicians perform them; we grow used to finer discrimination between performances, just as we are used to exercising when it comes to Beethoven or Brahms.

At any rate, I do not wish to exaggerate. The opening éclat of Figures-Doubles-Prismes made its proper impression, as did the following orchestral music, de profundis, and the exquisite tapestry of delights that followed that – all in less than a minute. There was a keen sense of non-linear, or not-only-linear, time, of expansion, although I wondered whether there might have been a little more of the latter. (Perhaps it was the acoustic.) A good few seeds of the much later world of the orchestral Notations seemed to be sown here, in a way I do not recall having noticed before, likewise the proliferating tendencies of the later music. Messiaen also seemed to hover in the background, even in the foreground occasionally, as if we were hearing secularised birdsong. The slightly, but only slightly, earthbound impression persisted into Mémoriale, Pahud and the small ensemble offering admirable clarity as figures bounced from soloist to others, almost as if they were a shadow, not quite taking on a life of its own, but nevertheless possessed of autonomy. Pahud’s flute playing was so admirably clear that one might have taken dictation. Both Boulez pieces, bizarrely, were met with outraged booing and shouted obscenities from one member of the audience. Quite what he had been expecting, I have no idea; the woman with him looked mortified, still more so when the rest of the audience turned and laughed at him. Pahud’s gentle mocking when the man simply would not shut up was just the thing: he cupped his ear as if to say ‘I’m sorry; I can’t hear you.’

It was noteworthy that our fascistic friend did not react similarly to the Ibert Flute Concerto which, somewhat oddly, followed. I should never dream of booing any performance and look very dimly on those who do, but for me, at least, the excellence of the performances notwithstanding, it was a bit of a trial, a slight piece of note-spinning that overstayed its welcome. There was no gainsaying Pahud’s virtuosity, nor indeed that of the rest of the orchestra, the leader included (her slow movement solos ravishingly played). Pahud’s range of articulation and dynamic range proved equally impressive, and he came as close to winning me over to this music as I imagine anyone could. Oh well, no one responds equally well to everything.

Matthias Pintscher’s Osiris, on the other hand, proved something of a revelation. It was premiered by Boulez in Chicago in 2008, but the kinship seemed to run deeper than that: kinship, I stress, certainly no mere imitation. Fantastical arabesques – again, truly exquisite high string writing – seemed to come into contact with, be changed by, and in turn transform, a more Germanic post-expressionist sound world: not so overt as, say, in Wolfgang Rihm or Jörg Widmann, perhaps all the more intriguing for its relative distance and its mediation of competing tendencies. It sounded, with the strong narrative pull of the work, as if this were a somewhat unexpected (that is, to say, not merely neo-Romantic) rapprochement with the tone poem. A Schoenbergian wind, as if from planet Gurrelieder, blew through the score at one point, the message seemingly more metaphysical than material. A trumpet solo, wonderfully played, sang and dazzled as if it represented a ‘character’; perhaps it did. Splendidly stereophonic tuned percussion playing inevitably recalled Boulez. This, I am sure, is music that needs rehearing; I look forward to doing so.

Finally, with La Mer, we heard an undisputed repertoire classic, one not only strongly associated with Boulez, but one performed at the 1958 premiere of Doubles, as it then was. I found Brönnimann’s reading, and the ORF SO’s performance thereof, utterly compelling: fresh, neither hidebound to tradition nor novel for the sake of it. ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ veritably teemed with life – and, like the sea, the more so the more carefully one looked (or listened). A strong sense of quasi-symphonic line prepared us well for the great climax of midday. The fantastical scherzo of ‘Jeux de vagues’ offered obvious connections with Boulez’s own music, yet spoke very much for itself too. Phrases were finely turned, yet never narcissistically so. It was impossible to ignore, though – and why would one try? – the seductive colours from the strings; silver, gold, all manner of shades in between and beyond. Now, in a reversal of the stakes in Mémoriale, it was wind that offered the shadow; until, of course, Debussy turned the tables time and time again so as to make a nonsense of such pedantry. There was, quite rightly, much that remained ineffable, not to be grasped. The wind that blew in ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ was a stormy one. Balances again shifted before our ears; so much comes to us from Debussy, as Boulez would have been the first to admit. Wagner, too, seemed to hover behind the score – as indeed, with the exception of the Ibert, he had all evening. But he hovered, flickered; all remained fruitfully uncertain, even the final climax. Boulez would surely have nodded in agreement.

Mark Berry

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