Music by Debussy and Manoury in a revealing and rewarding juxtaposition

GermanyGermany Debussy and Manoury: Jean-Frédéric Neuburger (piano), Boulez Ensemble / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 29.10.2023. (MB)

François-Xavier Roth and the Boulez Ensemble

Debussy – Sonata for flute, viola, and harp; Sonata for cello and piano
Manoury – Passacaille pour TokyoGrammaires du sonore 

Intelligent and revealing programming is always a joy. François-Xavier Roth ranks highly among those conductors regularly offering it. When married to equally intelligent and revealing performances it becomes all the more a joy, such as in this concert from the Boulez Ensemble, founded by Daniel Barenboim to include members of the Staatskapelle Berlin and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Two ensemble pieces by Philippe Manoury were prefaced by two late Debussy sonatas, the formal implications of which were highly suggestive and felt to be such for the Manoury works.

First, we heard Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola, and harp, an extraordinary work I do not think I have ever heard live before. The combination may be unusual, but surely is not that difficult to assemble; even if it were, it would be well worth the effort. Hélène Freyburger (flute), Yulia Deyneka (viola), and Aline Khouri (harp) struck an ideal balance from the outset between solo and ensemble. The first movement in particular was possessed of a magical inscrutability through which secrets were gradually revealed, first among them the quiet radicalism of Debussy’s reinvention of the sonata, quite without resort to what would become (arguably was just becoming) neoclassicism. For Debussy’s treatment of material already began to peer forward to Boulez and even to Manoury. The Interlude, somehow both darker and brighter, registered with proper contrast. Debussy’s use of the harp fascinated all the more in performance, as it encouraged the viola and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, the harp to expand their means, and initiated transformations of material and mood. Likewise in the finale, beginning in almost ‘classical’ style before taking other paths, not necessarily sequential: another anticipation of the future, bringing Birtwistle as well as Boulez to my mind.

Hélène Freyburger (flute), Yulia Deyneka (viola), and Aline Khouri (harp)

The piano moved centre-stage to Manoury’s 1994 Passacaille pour Tokyo, for piano and seventeen instruments. A similar reinvention of an old form, albeit with more overt éclat, is here founded upon repetition of a note, first E-flat, to which we feel a need to return and indeed continue to hear even when the actual note of repetition has changed. It offers proliferation in a way that recalls Boulez, as it were, from the other end, without the slightest sense of mere imitation. Jean-Frédéric Neuburger’s insistence on the initial E-flat, varying duration and attack, set the scene for an excellent performance of the whole. Manoury’s music glittered and glistened, never glowering, in a fantastical realm of invention. I had a sense of constant transformation even when, on a single hearing, I could not always tell you how, but the relation of this new passacaglia-idea to the old piano device of a pedal-point (or more than one) became clearer as time progressed, all the while as material was thrillingly passed between instruments, like high-speed Webern, though in many more directions. The advent of ‘shadow piano’, played offstage by Kyoko Nojima, was arresting in more than a merely spatial sense. Inevitably, perhaps, it died away on a single pitch, on Neuburger’s piano, but the abiding memory was as much of the delightful friction between repetition, even varying repetition, and persistent transformation above.

Neuburger was joined by cellist Alexander Kovalev for Debussy’s Cello Sonata, a dark, declamatory piano opening both picked up and transformed by cello playing (and writing) combining strength and elegy. Here was another different conception of the sonata, as if to remind us that Liszt’s declaration that new wine demanded new bottles was the afternoon’s motto; in many ways indeed it was. The variety of expressive articulation offered by both players, even within a single phrase, encapsulated not only a marriage of detail and greater sweep but also the concert’s conception of form springing from material. Pierrot-like whimsy and invention characterised the opening of the Sérénade et Finale. The mutual approach of instruments, for instance through piano marcato and cello pizzicato, prepared the way for a sense of controlled intoxication; that is, there were certainly limits, yet within those limits, a great deal could and did happen. Not unlike Manoury’s Passacaille, one might say.

Alexander Kovalev (cello) and Jean-Frédéric Neuburger (piano)

Barenboim arrived after the interval, with what I assume was the score of the next piece, which he proceeded to follow assiduously seated next to the composer. Manoury’s Grammaires du sonore was premiered by Roth and the Ensemble Intercontemporain last December in Paris. It made a huge impression on me here in Berlin — and, so far as I could tell, on the audience assembled at the Pierre Boulez Saal. A fuller ensemble here seemed not only to reinvent the modern ensemble’s reinvention of the symphony orchestra, but also, more radically, not only to question but magically to cast away its hierarchies in a riot of what went beyond Debussy’s controlled intoxication to post-Boulezian controlled delirium. Here, it seemed, there was a place for all to shine, democratically if you will, one of the first being Nina Janssen-Deinzer on contrabass clarinet, the piece seeming to fulfil or at least to renew a promise serialism had never quite been able to realise. Precision and fantasy were dialectically related, as in Boulez. Particular to the piece rather than a universal (was tonality ever really that in any case?), Manoury’s ‘grammar’ both demonstrated and enabled every note, like every word in a poem, truly to count. The fascination of that idea and the excitement of its putting in practice turned our attention back where it should always have been, to musical notes, their performance, their connection, and our listening. For the expression of musical imagination was both highly dramatic and readily perceptible.

Tuned percussion also brought Boulez, perhaps inevitably, a little to mind, yet Manoury’s writing was quite different: less elliptical, perhaps also freer in its exchanges  with untuned fellow citizens. Piano writing and Nojima’s performance were perhaps a little closer to ‘traditional’ expectations than what we had heard in the Passacaille, but that was no failing, no retreat, perhaps rather a sign of confidence in the instrument and its place in the ensemble. Brass, save the Wagner tuba, left the floor and went up to the balconies, ricocheting of notes in a layered spatiality expanding dimensions of the relationship between repeated notes and invention in the earlier work. Strings too seemed liberated by their new role, not as first among equals but simply as equals, scintillating, soulful, and much in between, sometimes merging into other sections in an aesthetic and perhaps not entirely apolitical utopia of sound. One chord seemed almost to approach ‘that’ chord in the Adagio of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. It was probably just my fancy, to be refuted were I to look at the score or listen again; yet, in the construction of a grammar to what Mahler might have considered a new world in itself, perhaps it was not entirely so. Debussy’s rethinking of form was honoured and extended, but above all this world dazzled and exhilarated. Crucially for us all now, it held out the promise of life, of a future, of the reinvention, reimagining, and rebuilding we desperately need: not through a didactic manifesto, but through music’s delight in itself.

Mark Berry

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