Boulez 2000 Berg: Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.6, Neuwirth: Clinamen/ Nodus, Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor. London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, conductor. Barbican Centre 26 January 2000
Take a significant work of the early twentieth-century, combine with music from a senior figure of the post-war era, and round off with a major new commission. Such is the thinking behind 'Boulez 2000', the latest of the collaborations between last century's most provocative composer/conductor, and the UK orchestra with whom he has worked most frequently of late.
The present series takes on added significance in the knowledge that Boulez will be severely limiting his conducting engagements in the future, so as to concentrate on composition. Not that there was any sign of tiredness or disinterest in his direction of the initial two concerts; save for some uncharacteristically out of sorts trumpet playing in the Mahler; the LSO responded with the flair and commitment of an orchestra being given its head.
Boulez was amongst the first conductors to search out the sense behind the extravagant gestures of Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, and the present performance combined clarity and finesse in equal measure. Praeludium emerged gradually and remorselessly; Reigen moved around the orchestra in alternately graceful and menacing gestures; Marsch found an equilibrium between Mahlerian angst and an altogether new sonic daring.
A thrilling performance: if Boulez is not recording the work for DG, it would make a excellent addition to the new LSO LIVE series.
The first of the series' commissions, Olga Neuwirth's Clinamen/Nodus - metaphorically speaking, the fixed unpredictability of the musical process - was clearly designed to fit in between the Berg and Mahler items. Scored for strings and a large, but thoughtfully-assembled, percusssion section, the presence of such luminaries as Nono, Gerhard and Zimmermann was evident, but so was a harmonic definition which sustained the piece over its 13 minutes of fractured momentum and fitful bursts of energy. No mere exercise in nostalgia then, but an inventive and potentially fruitful development of procedures under-explored in recent years, which the 32 year old Neuwirth will hopefully take further.
Its an indication of Boulez's interpretative curve back across the first half of the twentieth century that his performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony should have an almost ironic detachment, very much in keeping with the spirit of the age. At 78 minutes, this was a taut, but far from inflexible account: purposeful in the first two movements, with cowbells kept well in the background (though not enough for those members of the audience who requested that such offstage interference be curtailed!), and such exquisite touches as the scherzo's vanishing over the horizon taken at face value. The andante too was skilfully shaped as an interlude in the symphonic process, rather than the work's emotional apotheosis.
What Boulez does do, to an extent equalled by few others, is to reveal the form of each movement - what makes it happen and why. The finale is particularly striking in this respect, directing the momentum so that the recapitulation crystallizes the movement's, and thus the work's, symphonic inevitability. The net result is light years away from the high-angst of Bernstein or Tennstedt, but a valid and, in its very abstraction, a personal one nonetheless.
The attention level of the sizeable audience suggested that, however emotionally-distanced it found Boulez's approach, it was keen to stay with him for the duration.
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