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PROMS 2002

PROM 33: Varèse, Boulez, Stravinsky, Françoise Pollet (sop), Susan Parry (mezzo), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, RAH, 14th August 2002; Varèse, Intégrales; Pierre Boulez, Le visage nuptial; Pierre Boulez, Le soleil des eaux; Stravinsky, Petrushka (1911 version) (AR)

Edgard Varèse's  Intégrales for 11 wind instruments and percussion was composed in 1924 in Fernand Léger's studio in Paris and in the USA. The premiere of Intégrales  took place at a Guild concert in the Aeolian Theatre, New York, on 1 March 1925, under Leopold Stokowski.

Pierre Boulez conducted the BBC SO without a baton, with a precision and economy reminiscent of Klemperer.  Boulez sculpted  - rather than conducted - the orchestra, preferring to use his hands to tease -out, coax, and mould the sounds.   Intégrales is not programme music and Varèse warned against any kind of discursive analysis stating that the music was just that - music. However, the sound-world of Intégrales can be interpreted as imitating both the metallic post-modern city and the sounds of the reptilian primordial swamp. Boulez eschewed sensational sound-bites, conducting the work 'straight' in favour of giving the work an almost 18th century classical comportment.

Boulez' work, Le visage, consists of five poems charting the progress of a sexual relationship and his score follows the course of the affair from initiation to the height of passion to final disillusion.  Boulez's music transcends any trace of 'Mills & Boon' by his sheer musical invention, which uses the narrative structure to construct his own miniature Paul Klee-like sound world with echoes of Berg and Bartok, whilst his subtle and delicate instrumentation reminded me of Debussy's Jeux.  Again Boulez got polished playing from the BBC SO.  The percussion section produced sounds from antique symbols and other metallic instruments evoking an eerie chinoiserie.  The two soloists Françoise Pollet and Susan Parry sounded strangely subdued, like ghost echoes of each other, contrasting with the stylish and suave BBC Singer's women's voices.  To hear the composer conducting his own work was an extraordinary musical experience, only once ruined by the banal muzac of a mobile phone somewhere in the hall.  

Boulez'  ten minute cantata in two movements,  'Le soleil des eaux' has a first movement which reflects the view-point of a lizard by a river's edge, and a second movement representing the energy and flow of the river. This is the only work by Boulez which uses referential nature 'scene painting'.  Boulez's score is not a literal depiction of nature but a world of abstract sounds which the BBC SO imbued with a brittle nervousness.  Françoise Pollet assumed a very different persona here, singing with great panache and passion, and with a powerful projection which entirely filled the hall.

Boulez conducted Stravinsky's Petrushka with a brisk tempo, treating the work as if it were a one movement classical symphony. Again, Boulez made the score sound so transparent that one could hear every detail of the orchestra even in the louder passages.  The woodwind playing was full of character, ranging from the comic, raising several laughs, to the tragic wailing of the clarinet during Petrushka's death agony and denunciation.  The brass were marvellously jazzy and raucous, but what let this otherwise classical account down were the strings, which sounded curiously anaemic. The opening of 'In the Moor's Booth' calls for ominous throbbing from the cellos and basses, uncannily like the 'Jaws' film soundtrack, but here were barely audible, lessening their menace.  Six minutes into 'The Shrovetide Fair' one should hear a staccato stabbing from all the strings, but again it was tentative, totally lacking in bite.  Recordings of Petrushka by Giulini and the Chicago Symphony and Kondrashin with the Concertgebouw Orchestra demonstrate how these string passages should sound. However, the clarinet and trumpet solos had a crisp, incisive syncopation normally associated with trad Jazz.  It only remained for the usual Promenade Bronchitic and yet another mobile phone ringing to destroy the poignancy of Petrushka's death.

In the Wild West, cowboys were required by some saloon keepers to leave their guns behind the bar to avoid unpleasantnesses.  It is high time the Royal Albert Hall required its patrons to check-in their mobile phones for the same reason.

Alex Russell

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