Concert Review

Berio: Notturno/Sciarrino: Recitativo oscuro/Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande Maurizio Pollini, piano/London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Boulez, conductor  Boulez 2000 series, Barbican Hall, 2 March, 2000

And so to the last of Pierre Boulez's four 'turn-of-the-century' concerts with the LSO and what, on paper, looked the most forbidding of the series.

Notturno caused something of a stir when it appeared as Berio's Third String Quartet back in 1993. Here was a quartet with almost a surfeit of allusion and ambiguity of meaning, couched in the streamlined but expressive textures of Berio's instrumental music over the past two decades. When realised by the four musicians, the muted attempts to 'compose silence' out of minimal gestures became a fascinating, if disorienting process of listening inwardly. Expanded to string orchestra, however, the music loses focus, sounding generalised, even monochrome in its new guise. Boulez got an appropriately blanched timbre from the LSO strings, but at 26 minutes it was a hard, uninvolving slog. Better to investigate the original, its austere intensity admirably conveyed by the Alban Berg Quartet [EMI CDC5 56363-2].

The last of the LSO/Boulez 2000 commissions followed in Salvatore Sciarino's Recitativo oscuro, a veritable 'anti-concerto' for piano and orchestra. Now in his 53rd year, and very much in the European modernist tradition, Sciarrino is gaining belated recognition in the UK. Like his elder compatriot Aldo Clementi, his music operates at a distance from the classical tradition - sceptical but never cynical in its response. Recitativo oscuro threatens, but never achieves dialogue between the protagonists. Its interplay of stylised ostinati creates an atmosphere portentous in its sense of imminent catastrophe, yet darkly humorous in knowingly denying this expectation. Not for nothing did Pollini look uncharacteristically anxious over its 16 minute course: the strain of co-ordinating a part with so many rests was palpable, even with Boulez to keep events on an even keel. A recent CD, featuring Infinito nero and Le voci sottovetro, adds further pieces to the Sciarrino puzzle [Kairos 0012022KAI].

The concert ended with Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande, his suprisingly early (1903) farewell to late-Romantic extravagance, and an ideal, if downbeat work with which to conclude the series. This unwieldy compromise between symphony and symphonic poem, memorably described by Busoni as an assortment of sharp implements jostling in a sack, is a flawed but powerful work. Its best passages - the luminous introduction, the eerie dungeon scene and the ethereal whole-tone sequence depicting the death of Melisande - strikingly offset the sombre mood elsewhere. Boulez took the highs and lows in his stride, relishing the rather hysterical love scene, and securing playing of depth and lustre from an in-form LSO yet again. His 1991 recording with the Chicago SO [Teldec Ultima 3984-24241-2] has a comparable range of characterisation, but not the same immediacy of response.

One final thought before leaving this very enjoyable and often provocative series. Will the grand statements that appeared at the beginning of the last century, and formed the backbone of Boulez 2000, have their successors in the context of the music, concert-halls and audiences of the future?

Richard Whitehouse

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