Challenging Programme from Ensemble Modern and George Benjamin Yields Great Rewards at the Roundhouse

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Boulez, Messiaen, Ustvolskaya, Ligeti, and Benjamin: Ueli Wiget (piano), Ensemble Modern / George Benjamin (conductor). Roundhouse, Camden, London, 6.3.2019. (MB)

Boulez – Initiale
Messiaen – Sept haïkai
Ustvolskaya – Composition No.2, ‘Dies irae’
Ligeti – Ramifications
Benjamin – Palimpsests

Pierre Boulez’s Initiale was chosen to inaugurate Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal almost two years ago to the day. If not quite inaugurating the Roundhouse, home to what seem to have been some of Boulez’s most memorable concerts during his time with the BBC, it nonetheless offered a fitting fanfare to the Wigmore Hall’s new series of new music concerts there. George Benjamin and the Ensemble Modern had given splendid performances ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street the previous night (reviewed for this site by Colin Clarke click here). Here the ensemble was in full orchestral form, at least for three of the five pieces, though none is conventionally scored by late-Romantic standards. Initiale, in any case, is for brass septet. I had imagined, foolishly, that the instruments might, in homage to Gabrieli et al., have been placed around us. The hall is on the large side for that, whatever might have worked in Berlin. In both this and Messiaen’s Sept haïkai, my ears took a while to adjust to the acoustic, but there was nevertheless much to be gleaned in this miniature masterclass in typically Boulezian proliferation. It left one wanting more – which, in a way, we received – from Boulez’s teacher.

Messiaen seems to have become strangely unfashionable at the moment; perhaps he awaits ‘rediscovery’. He unquestionably deserves it. Boulez had conducted the 1963 premiere of Sept haïkai, with Yvonne Loriod at the piano. I had a few doubts, especially to start with, concerning this performance, but again I think the need to adjust to the acoustic may have been the real enemy here. Ueli Wiget certainly relished the virtuosity of the piano part, especially in the extraordinary cadenza-like passages, their roots very much in nineteenth-century pianism, quite transformed here by the unmistakeable voice and imagination of this most singular of composers. Benjamin had the measure – in more than one sense – of the music’s varying metrical demands, quite rightly making light of them, art concealing art. Birds sang, chimes sounded, vistas were made manifest before our eyes and ears, synaesthetic or otherwise.

Perhaps the greatest surprise on the programme was Galina Ustvolskaya’s Composition No.2, ‘Dies irae’, for eight double basses, percussion (a huge wooden block), and piano. The word ‘uncompromising’ is all too readily reached for, both generally and specifically, but is almost impossible to avoid here. I was surprised both by Benjamin’s inclusion of the work and indeed by the power with which it struck me, neither he nor I necessarily being the most obvious audience for this music. Its starkness, its unswerving faith, its economy of means provided many points of comparison and contrast with Messiaen’s music. Neither is music with which one argues; or, if one does, one will come off the worse. Performances, nicely lodged between ritual and drama – I even thought briefly, however incongruously, of Parsifal – likewise brooked no dissent. For me, this perhaps proved the revelation, a decidedly un-Boulezian revelation, of the programme.

Whereas I had thought Ustvolskaya’s piece might have been the one to stand out oddly from the rest of the programme, it was actually Ligeti’s Ramifications I had more trouble placing in context with the others. Perhaps it was chosen simply as a work Boulez had performed here in those earlier Roundhouse concerts. It hardly mattered, in any case. Whether it were my ears or the playing that had now properly adjusted, or both, I do not know; what I do know is that Ligeti’s masterwork registered with great clarity and drama. Benjamin and his players, as well as the score ‘itself’, drew one in, compelled one to listen – to listen in ways one could never have imagined, even if one had actually approached them before. The differences in tuning between string groups proved so richly expressive that one never so much as noticed the lack of metre in a conventional sense. (Perhaps that was the definite contrast with the preceding works?) Swarming string plainsong – its reimagination, at any rate, if only by me – reinvented tradition before our ears.

Benjamin’s own Palimpsests was written for Boulez and the LSO – who, if memory serves correctly, had vividly relished the challenges. (How could they not?) Both movements – ‘Palimpsest I’ and ‘Palimpsest II’, the first originally performed as a stand-alone work – recreate not only vertically but horizontally the drama of rediscovery, of rereading a succession of manuscript texts. So, at least, it sounded here, in splendidly committed performances. A brass interjection here, a seraphic flight of fancy there, played with ideas of what was and what might have been: all part of a whole that yet depended upon the call of the moment. Some, at least, of the roots of Written on Skin sounded uncommonly apparent: emotionally as well as intellectually, whatever the fallacy of the dichotomy. Was such writing and rewriting not, after all, one of the points both of programme and performance?

Mark Berry

For more about Ensemble Modern click here.

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