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S & H Concert Review

Debussy & Benjamin, LSO, Pierre Boulez, Barbican, 5th October 2002 (AR)


DEBUSSY Prelude Laprès-midi dun faune
GEORGE BENJAMIN Palimpsest I and Palimpsest II (World Premiere)
DEBUSSY Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien

Pierre Boulez - conductor
Sally Matthews - soprano
Alice Coote - mezzo
Sara Mingardo - alto
Thibault de Montalembert - narrator
London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra

In the programme notes George Benjamin explains why he loves Debussy's L'après-midi dun faune: "In its ten minutes it achieves total perfection. Every moment of it, from the very first note on the flute is a revelation. Debussy achieves an almost tangible warmth and richness of sound, and the harmonic language is almost unbearably poignant." If only Boulez and the London Symphony Orchestra could have lived up to Benjamin's description.

Whilst Boulez conducted with surgical skill, there was something rather detached about his reading; often monochromatic and two dimensional, the LSOs playing was uncharacteristically mannered, lacking poignancy.  What was missing was the essential pulsating throb in the bass line: poetry and rhythm were conspicuously lacking in what became a largely pedestrian performance, for which the conductor must shoulder much of the blame.  As Mahler observed, there is no such thing as a bad orchestra, only a bad conductor.  Boulez is a fine conductor, but this was not one of his best performances.  Listening to Toscanini's 1936 General Motors broadcast concert of Debussy's work with the New York Philharmonic makes clear where Boulez failed to ignite the LSO.

The LSO showed more flair when playing George Benjamin's Palimpsest I and Palimpsest II (World Premiere). In these works Benjamin had clearly learnt the art of economy in orchestration so evident in Debussy's L'après-midi d'un faune even if Palimpsest I has clear echoes of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. In the programme notes Benjamin writes: "Palimpsest: a manuscript on which two or more texts have been written successively, the original surviving only in fragments. The term can also be applied to natural landscapes, even cityscapes, where the visible form is the result of accretion through the ages."  

In these intriguing works one hears a building up of layers of superimposed textures. There was something very refreshing about Benjamin's orchestration which allowed all these multi-layered textures to shine through even when everything was going on. His subtle scoring for the percussion created a subterranean sound world which served as a strong foundation.  In Palimpsest II  the LSO brass played with a deliberate stridency which suited these works, whilst the violins played with a mordant, acidic attack. The double basses were divided which curiously lessened their impact.
Both orchestra and conductor acquitted themselves admirably with these complex and demanding scores.

As one would expect of Boulez, Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien was conducted with precision and was perfectly paced: however, he only managed to draw a somewhat lack-lustre performance from the LSO. Despite having a French conductor, this was French music played with an English accent, and when the LSO Chorus came in it sounded more like Walton's Balshazzar's Feast.  The soloists however were all superb - Sally Matthews (soprano) in particular giving a radiant performance - whilst Alice Coote (mezzo) and Sara Mingado (contralto) sang with great style and intensity.  The French narrator delivered his lines with passion and gusto.
I could never have imagined that this mysterious music could sound so anodyne.  Going back to Guido Cantelli's 1953 NBC SO concert of the four orchestral excerpts from Debussy's Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien was pure magic, pure mystery.   On this occasion, the LSO just seemed to lack passion and it seems odd that a French conductor of Boulez' stature should not have produced a more French-sounding account of these Debussy works from this versatile orchestra.

Alex Russell


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