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Boulez and the LSO (I): Boulez, Bartok, Stravinsky: Hélène Grimaud (pf); London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez (conductor); Barbican, October 8th 2004 (AR)


The polymath and phenomenon known as Pierre Boulez turns a concert into an event - and such was the Barbican's programme of Boulez, Bartok and Stravinsky.


The innovation of Boulez' Livre pour Cordes (1948/9, arr. 1968, rev. 1989) is that the writing for strings has a distinct texture, sounding almost as if they were made of different metals. Whilst there are echoes of Debussy and Bartok in this score, it is very much Boulez' sound world, alien to classical convention and composition. The work does not operate in a linear 'commonsense' clock time but goes back upon itself and divides itself into multiple time zones - the work never really begins and never really ends. The versatile LSO strings adapted to this Boulez sound with great aplomb, playing with acidic bite and a grainy gravitas.


This was the third time I have heard Hélène Grimaud play Bela Bartok's Piano Concerto No.3 (1945) 'live' and her performance under Boulez was entirely different from her former readings; she never ceases to astonish and excite. Her performance on this occasion was much more percussive and made of sterner stuff, even darker and more daring than the earlier ones. It is as if she herself is rediscovering the piece each time she plays it, making us hear it afresh too.


Grimaud seems to attune her tone and temperament to the sounds of the orchestra she is working with and here she took on the hues of the LSO - sombre and stark, with piano and woodwind in particular in perfect unison. With the ‘Adagio religioso’ she brought out an alienating quality, fragmenting the notes between sound and silence yet without losing the onward flow of the music. As a point of interest, György Sándor, who was one of Grimaud's teachers, premiered this concerto, providing a bridging link between herself and Bartok. The last movement was performed at lightening speed, with Grimaud's resonant sounds perfectly complementing the incisive timpani interjections of Nigel Thomas. Boulez and the LSO, needless to say, gave brilliant support throughout. After hearing this bleakly and emotionally intense performance one wonders how Grimaud will interpret this work again in the future.


Boulez conducted Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring from a score, without a baton and using his customary minimalist gestures in the manner of Markervitch and Monteux. And like these two conductors, Boulez conducted the score with chamber like intricacy and precision where even in the climaxes all the orchestral details of the score shone through without congestion. Bassoonist Rachel Gough's unnervingly high- pitched opening solo perfectly established the eerie mood, setting the tone for this emotionally raw performance. In ‘Harbingers of Spring: Dances of the Adolescents’ the only thing lacking was weight and toughness in the early passages for stabbing string chords’. In stark contrast, the brass, timpani and bass drum had a brutal impact in ‘Mock Abduction and Games of the Rival Tribes.’ The pacing of ‘Adoration of the Earth and Dance of the Earth’ were a little ponderous at first, tending to negate the sense of forward-thrusting, manic movement.


‘Part Two: The Sacrifice’ was beautifully measured and intense and never dragged with Boulez conjuring subterranean sounds in the ‘Introduction (Largo),’ and the LSO playing with concentration and relentless precision. ‘The Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One’ was breathtakingly intense, with Boulez' inexorable tempo and the timpani and bass drum nailing the music to the death which brings this primeval score to its nerve wracking conclusion. This was a shattering but exhilarating experience for all concerned.


Alex Russell


Further listening:


Bela Bartok: Piano Concerto No. 3 in E major: Martha Argerich (pf), Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor); EMI Classics: 56654


Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine (conductor): Deutsche Grammophon: 474 485-2(CD)

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