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PROM 65: Boulez, Sur Incises, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre Boulez (dir.), Royal Albert Hall (late Prom), 3rd September 2004 (MB)


Sur Incises (1996/1998), based on the composer’s Incises for solo piano, is unlike some of Boulez’ other works for solo instruments, such as Messagesquisse, in that it triples the instrumentation. So here, for example, we have Boulez configuring the music for three pianos, three harps and three groups of percussion transforming a quintessentially solo idea into a form of quasi-orchestral interaction. The work’s uniqueness is that it remains principally solo music and its revelation in this performance was that it worked so well in the acoustic of the Albert Hall. It achieved, under the composer’s peerless direction, a sense of spatial opulence that gave novel meaning to the communicativeness of music.


What on the surface may seem incompatible instrumentation works in the opposite direction. The harps imitate the plucked sound of the piano’s strings whilst the percussion mirrors its soundboard, with the piano itself giving the work not just depth of sonority but a sense of texture. True, at times one can hear those textures disintegrate only to be reformed elsewhere but it is its amplification that gives the work its own personal genesis and one suspects every performance will be unique to where it is played.


As always with a Boulez piece seeing a performance is an innate part of the musical equation. The visual importance of seeing the percussion – marimbas, vibraphones, bells and drums – conjoins musically with the listener imagining the infinite flexibility such instrumentation imposes on the ear and mind. It is the individualisation of response and the unpreparedness of the percussion sound – a wooden mallet on a marimba, a hammer against a bell – that superimposes the mechanical sound of the piano into a much wider context. Significantly, Boulez sees only the pianos as rivals – bass chords outwitting high tessitura – and it is this which gives this instrumental grouping its coherence.


This particular performance had all the merits of the composer at the helm and instrumentalists who understand what the composer is looking for. Those rapid arabesques that Boulez sought in doubling and then tripling the piano part, were ably managed by his three soloists (and how beautifully it evoked the four pianos Stravinsky deployed in Les Noces, also on this programme.) Also notable was the performance’s dramatic sense of colour and counterpoint – the harps underscoring the work’s basic rhythms, for example – and the use of the percussion to suggest a much larger ensemble (each percussionist plays three separate instruments.) Virtuosically, this was a feat of playing which outstripped much of what has been heard at this year’s Proms, with Boulez the conductor giving the kind of fluid leadership that has been sometimes lacking elsewhere.


Even though this was a late night Prom (starting at 10.15pm rather than the usual 10pm, because of the complex stage layout) the audience was a large and appreciative one. It would have made this reviewer especially happy if he had been able to stay for the Stravinsky that followed, but trains being what they are (i.e. the last one is just before mid-night) he gathered up his bag and left before a note had been played. The BBC should really address this issue of late night concerts, at least while London’s transport system remains as Third World as it is. That either means starting the concerts 30 minutes earlier or shortening their programme length (this one was scheduled to run for 1 hour and 45 minutes.) Until this happens, my attendance at them will be rare occasions and so too will those of late evening Prom goers.


Marc Bridle






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