Concert Review

Boulez 2000
Boulez: Originel from ...explosante-fixe...; Benjamin: Palimpsest (world premiere); Schoenberg: Piano Concerto, Op. 42; Stravinsky: Petrushka (1911 version)
; Paul Edmund-Davies, flute; Daniel Barenboim, piano; London Symphony Orchestra; Pierre Boulez, conductor; Barbican Hall, London Wednesday 2 February

For the second of his current series with the London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez programmed one of his own works, Originel, as an understated curtain-raiser. This flute-laden miniature is the textural and tonal crystallization of ...explosante-fixe..., Boulez's 1971 tribute to Stravinsky, definitively realized only by 1993, and a typically labyrinthine traversal of the poetically simple formula derived from the senior composer's initials. While Originel seems all the more conclusive at the end of the greater work's spatial complexity, its haunting, post- Debussyian sonorities made an enticing impression.

There are few composers alive who can match George Benjamin's feeling. achieved slowly and painstakingly, for melding sound into form, and Palimpsest, an LSO co-commission for this series, is no exception. The build-up of tension in its opening five minutes, stark and inexorable, draws on the stylistic clarity of the Three Inventions, while the remaining three minutes create an urgency and anticipation which overshoots the undeniably prenature close. Something for the future, perhaps.

More than any other of his later works, Schoenberg's Piano Concerto exemplifies the difficulty in listening through to the consistency of the music's accommodation between serial and tonal organization. While there's a measure of relaxation in Schoenberg's formal conception, the clarity of the thematic writing betrays little sense of stylistic compromise or nostalgia, and no feeling of 'wrong note Brahms', although the concentration of musical interest in the middle registers obliquely recalls the orchestral sonority of the older master. Barenboim sculpted the solo part with impressive gravity and control, though his seeming reluctance to drop below mezzo-forte gave the work a rhetoric which verged on the hectoring. Boulez shaded instrumental textures with due concern for line and coherence, injecting an agitation into the music at key points in its striving to a hard-won affirmation. Distinctive rather than definitive then, but a further stage in the claiming of this recalcitrant work for the repertoire.

One of the highlights of Boulez's 1995 series with the LSO was his marvelously flexible and humane reading of Stravinsky's Petrushka, the irridiscent 1911 orchestration heightening the impact. While the present performance didn't penetrate the music's finely-chiselled exterior to quite the same degree, the playing was beyond praise, not least in the bustle of the 'Shrovetide Fair' music which acts as a scenic, but also psychological backdrop to the triangular relationship depicted within. Still in his early maturity, it was fascinating to observe yet again Stravinsky's stratified approach to the orchestra, stripping away decades of Romantic layering and highlighting individual sonorities with a confidence that would remain constant over more than five decades of changing compositional endeavour. Absorbing listening, attested to by a virtually silent audience.

Richard Whitehouse

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