The Music of Boulez and Carter in Fascinating Conjunction

AustriaAustria Boulez and Carter: oenm (österrichsches ensemble für neue musik) / Johannes Kalitzke (conductor). Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 7.6.2017. (MB)

BoulezDérive 1 (1984); Improvisé – pour le Dr. K. (1969/2005); Dérive 2 (1988-2009)

CarterBariolage (1992); Triple Duo (1983)

Pierre Boulez’s relationship to Elliott Carter and to the music of the greatest of all American composers (so far) ran long and deep. I was fortunate enough to attend the centenary concert Boulez gave with the Ensemble Intercontemporain in London on Carter’s actual hundredth birthday – when he was, celebratedly, still composing. As part of the Vienna Konzerthaus’s Boulez festival, then, Carter was an obvious companion composer to Boulez. Whether, in practice, this combination worked as well as I had hoped, I am not sure, but that may actually more be a reflection of my having come entirely fresh to the two Carter pieces on the programme (Triple Duo in particular surely requiring more than a single listening). At any rate, these performances from oenm, Triple Duo and Dérive 2 conducted by Johannes Kalitzke, gave impressive accounts of the music.

Dérive 1 opened the programme, its raw(ish)material by now – given its use in various other pieces – quite familiar to me, yet nevertheless engendering an air of fantasy, of expectation, of play that is ever surprising. Shifting balances caught the ear: not quite Klangfarbenmelodie, but perhaps not quite not either. The exquisite finish of work and performance suggested something aquatic, certainly not marmoreal. Nora Skuta’s excellent pianism reminded me that, when we consider Boulez’s piano writing, we need to think of works such as this too, not just the works for piano(s) alone. I found myself especially intrigued by the similarities between and, still more, the differences from, that and the equally fine vibraphone playing (Arabella Hirner). Even here, let alone in Dérive 2, process was very much fundamental to the experience.

Katharina Teufel’s performance of Carter’s Bariolage, for solo harp, seemed to delight in confounding lazy assumptions – which somehow remain, even when one thinks one has banished them – concerning the instrument: not through extended techniques, not through Lachenmann-style deconstruction, but somehow just by writing and making music that is personal. One could make – and I think I did – connections with its Boulez predecessor concerning fantasy and temporality. Difference manifested itself at least as strongly, though, not least in more overt virtuosity. It felt a little as if one were being taken for a walk in an urban garden: ‘urban’, in the sense of urban modernity, a garden of steel and sky, of glass and sunlight, planned and yet free. Time seemed almost literally to fly: it was over almost before it had begun.

This was the first time I had heard Boulez’s Improvisé – pour le Dr. K. I came to it blind, or perhaps better, deaf, without programme notes or any other information, learning only afterwards, from the Internet, that it had been one of eleven pieces commissioned by Universal Edition for the eightieth birthday of its director, Alfred Kalmus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my ear fastened on kinship with some of the figures and shapes of Dérive 1, but again, more strikingly, on difference. The prominence of the clarinet (Theodor Burkali) brought to mind Schoenberg’s Pierrot ensemble and its post-war life, before I actually realised what was staring me in the face as well as the ears: this was, of course, the Pierrot ensemble: flute, clarinet, piano, viola, and cello. That out of the way, Boulez’s typical, yet never quite the same, ways with éclat and temporality came to the fore of my listening: renewed and refreshed. I thought occasionally of Birtwistle (clarinet again?) It was a splendid bagatelle, which I look forward to hearing again, ideally alongside some of its companion pieces. Later, I discovered that it had actually been written for the Pierrot Players, so my thought of Birtwistle was perhaps not entirely absurd. (Only part of Boulez’s piece, an extract for solo clarinet, was performed at the premiere, it seems.)

In Triple Duo, the instruments (flue/piccolo, clarinets, percussion, piano, violin, cello) seemed to announce themselves as if they were music-theatre characters, children of The Soldier’s Tale. Twists and turns in the ‘plot’ were constantly surprising, even if I did not quite always follow. (As I said, I really need to hear the piece again.) They were hard to reconcile, sometimes, but perhaps that is the point. I was certainly made to think, integrative and disintegrative processes enabling, even compelling, one to do so. I sometimes thought of proliferation, not quite like Boulez’s later work, perhaps in a sense closer to the conjuring tricks of Haydn. Reinvention, rehearing seemed important, at least to my experience – and I think to the work as a whole, which unfolded dramatically, as if in a sequence of scenes. The premiere was given in 1983, by The Fires of London, successors to the Pierrot Players: a nice programming touch to learn of, if only retrospectively.

This was doubtless in part illusion, even delusion; yet, in context, Dérive 2 seemed to perform an integrative and yet centrifugal function with respect to many of the musical tendencies heard in the first half. I also felt in this performance a strange, far from unwelcome, sense of Boulez’s early Artaudian frenzy classicised – which, thinking about it, is probably not so very far from the mark, whatever the detractors of his later music might claim. (‘Culinary’ is one description I have heard.) I picked up, this time, on certain Stravinskian colours (combinations of instruments, even melodic cells), coming to the surface, yet what was especially striking, certain kinship or procedure with Ligeti and Carter notwithstanding, was just how unlike any other music this began to sound. Indeed, I was especially struck by how unlike my recollections of previous performances it sounded too. It was catchy, almost balletic (imagine what Béjart might have done here!), serial processes bobbing above that beguiling surface, swiftly submerged once again. La Mer did not seem so very far away, at times, and Triple Duo seemed, by comparison, just a little dry, even contrived. That transformative tendency in Boulez’s music, with deep roots in the Second Viennese School, even perhaps in Liszt and Wagner, reasserted, refreshed itself – or at least it did for me.

Mark Berry

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