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Boulez and the LSO (II) Boulez and Mahler: London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez; Barbican Hall, 13th October, 2004 (AR)

Pierre Boulez describes his Dérive 2 (premiere of latest version) as a “work in progress'’ and it certainly came across as a free floating form without beginning, centre or end. The piece ends where is begins, with an A on the horn, giving the sense that it will begin again and again ad infinitum. The disturbing sensation of this piece is that it is in pieces: each instrumentalist is both isolated and integrated at the same time. The sounds are so highly concentrated and fleeting that they by-pass the ear and attack the nervous system: this is not music for the ears but music for the internal organs - the body listens to these visceral sounds. The clock time of this score runs for around 25 minutes but the sensation of time made it feel as if it were going on forever in an eternal loop. The sixteen LSO musicians played this intricate and multifaceted score with great precision and aplomb.

I have never felt that Boulez has an instinctive feeling for Mahler’s psycho-pathological scores. In a way, Mahler and Boulez are antithetical. Boulez says that the Mahler symphonies that most interest him are 5, 6 & 7 but having heard him in these works he seems to have little, if any, rapport with them. His interpretation of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in E minor was more akin to a surgeon’s scalpel cutting up the body of the score with sterile precision. Mahler was one of those rare composers who knew how to go too far, piling crescendo upon crescendo until the head and heart ache together. One does not listen to Mahler: one experiences Mahler. None of this emotional over-spill was evident here.

This was clearly an under-rehearsed performance, with the London Symphony Orchestra sounding undisciplined, coarse and brash: the opening brass passages were acidic sounding and mostly appallingly played. The pacing of the Langsam - Allegro was ponderously flat-footed with Boulez fragmenting the flow of the music. Boulez failed to register that this is principally a march-type movement and it should not keep stopping and starting all the time as it did in this performance. Boulez also totally misconceived the sedate and sensuous Scherzo Schattenhaft by failing to register the essential smaltz and kitsch elements of this movement and playing it too straight, too loudly and, above all, missing its spooky and sinister mood.

Boulez was at his best in the Nachtmusik II which had a lilting grace and naïve charm overlaid with a brooding melancholia and a sense of threatening danger. The woodwind and mandolin solos were exquisitely done while the strings had a serene warmth to them.

The last movement is sheer musical masturbation and not one of Mahler’s best - it is akin to both the last movement of Bruckner’s 6th and Tchaikovsky’s 5th in sheer bombast for bombast’s sake. Most conductors have found this hell-for-leather movement problematical and difficult to pull off, as Boulez acknowledged in the programme notes: "I place responsibility for that on my own shoulders, not on Mahler's." Even Mahler veteran Otto Klemperer couldn’t hold this anarchic movement together. The opening timpani were robustly played (as they were throughout) but again the brass were brash. Unlike the first movement, Boulez had a total grasp of the structure and metre driving the music forward without sectionalising it. What Boulez failed to negotiate was the Barbican Hall’s oppressive, in-your-face acoustic, resulting in the brass sounding too distorted: the symphony ended in sheer noise, not music. Boulez is not really at home with Mahler.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Gustav Mahler Seventh Symphony, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein (conductor): Sony: CD 60564

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