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S & H Concert Review

Bartok & Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, Barbican, 9th October 2002 (MB)


Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is one of the seminal string works of the last century; balancing virtuosity and poetry through a half-hour span it is invariably a compelling experience in live concert.

During this year's Proms Claudio Abbado conducted one of the most sublime accounts of the work I have yet heard. I wrote at the time:

The opening ghostly fugue was almost skeletal in its beauty, but they [the Gustav Mahler Judenorchester] and Abbado gave it such sinuous textures it became more and more fleshed out as the movement developed. With the two string orchestras playing in perfect unison the polyphony was richly layered. The fast allegro brought incandescent imagery as each orchestra shadowed the other; the adagio became a glittering movement of shimmering tremolandos and naked percussiveness. The finale, with its East European folksiness so wonderfully characterised, alternated between blistering string figurations and gaunt, expressive percussion. Played and conducted with such brilliance it proved a spellbinding experience.

Pierre Boulez’ equally spellbinding account was largely different in approach. Using smaller forces than Abbado (eight double basses as opposed to Abbado’s twelve, for example) Boulez concentrated less on the sinewy textures and more on the work’s darker ambivalence. If Abbado’s conception was a more symphonic one, Boulez suggested that approaching the work as chamber music is equally valid. The distinctive balance of orchestral voices was given greater subtlety, the counterpoint between the two orchestras a less emotional, more detached tonality. Indeed, the dark, grainy tone of the LSO’s strings gave a less edgy anxiety to the ethereal adagio, although this was more than counterbalanced by some intrinsically harsh percussiveness.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was given an electrifying performance, although this conductor’s abrasive, almost combative, approach to Mahler’s symphonies made it a somewhat brash experience with brass rarely as subtle as they should be. Boulez’ view of this score is a world away from that of Simon Rattle, and no more so than in the opening Funeral March. Whereas Rattle drags the tempi, and is inclined towards less than perspicacious rubato, Boulez is a paradigm of the great Mahler interpreter. His pacing is inscrutable building up the tension of the symphony over its entire span. Hence, the Funeral March achieves an unparalleled sense of menace and fear made all the more naked by Boulez’ refusal to give the lamenting second theme any sense of romantic structure. When the Trio emerges it does so preternaturally and with uncommon violence.

Boulez continues this approach into both the allegro and the scherzo. Ostinato double basses at the opening of the second movement leave an indelible, thunderous impact and Boulez shapes the brass chorales with a vehemence that underlines this symphony’s heroic protagonism. The third movement horn obbligato, quite wonderfully played by the LSO’s principal horn, David Pyatt, is almost the only moment where Boulez allows a sense of beauty to emerge from the first two parts of the symphony. With conductor and soloist giving a spaciousness to the lyricism, and with Pyatt producing pianissimo’s of breathtaking clarity, the effect is beguiling.

The adagietto was phrased subliminally, with the LSO strings producing a richness of tone almost at odds with Boulez’ swift tempo. This very swiftness made the slow opening of the Rondo more pressing than it often seems and from thereon Boulez rivets the attention by winding up the power of the finale’s contrapuntalism with unrivalled skill. When the coda appears it does so with all the cumulative power one expects, but rarely hears. It was breathtaking.

With the exception of some less than accurate intonation in the trumpets (notably in the first movement) this was a magnificently played performance and one in which conductor and orchestra were at one in their vision of a symphony which should be as fearful as it is energetic.

Marc Bridle

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