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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Boulez: Livre pour cordes, Mahler: Symphony No. 5, London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, Conductor, Carnegie Hall, New York City, January 27, 2005 (BH)

I consider myself a lucky man to have heard Mahler’s Fifth Symphony twice in live performance in the last few months, including a fine one by Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra last November (nicely summed up by Bernard Jacobson in his review) and a third time last year with Maazel and the New York Philharmonic. This exhausting work has become a virtual concert hall staple, with increasingly adept musicians becoming relatively accustomed to its challenges.

Pierre Boulez has added to the festivities of the last few years with a series of highly controversial Mahler recordings (although I like most of them) and live performances, and here brought his latest thoughts for the first of three concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra, celebrating its centenary year. (I bowed out of the middle concert for scheduling reasons, but returned for Saturday’s Rite of Spring.) I hadn’t heard the LSO since last season’s memorable concert Peter Grimes, and don’t expect to ever hear that score played so well any time soon.

All of this said, last night’s concert was most enjoyable but slightly puzzling, and left me in a good mood for many reasons, but feeling a bit ambiguous about Boulez and his relationship to Mahler. (I don’t think my hesitation was shared by many in the packed audience, who gave the conductor a massive cheer at the close.) The symphony opened with a really gorgeous call by the orchestra’s principal trumpet, just one of a host of excellent brass players in the group. If there was the occasional slightly sour horn note, nowadays in Mahler I almost expect one here and there, given the frequency of performances and the pitfalls in the composer’s writing. Some of the solo entrances are just too perilous for words; it’s like watching musician as high-wire artist.

From the beginning, Boulez chose tempi that were straightforward, to the point, and rarely did he feel the urge to over-emphasize. His attention to the score – and he used one – was matched by precise hand movements with a typically modest range of motions – no podium ballets here. Only occasionally, such as in the “Adagietto,” here sounding more wintry than usual, did he allow a slight pause before the ecstatic restatement of the theme, to punctuate the flow a bit. But ultimately his X-ray approach to the score did not quite satisfy my hunger, and I still can’t quite put my finger on the reason, since my ears usually respond to his trademark hyper-clarity. (His Bruckner Eighth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic was quite a pleasant surprise.) But somehow here a bit of soulfulness seemed absent. Every phrase was in place, and the LSO played compellingly, delivering a range of emotions – now coarse, now refined, now jugular, now reserved, and Boulez deserves credit for encouraging the wide mix of sounds in the ensemble. To everyone’s credit, this was not Mahler as a beautiful object, but I wanted a bit more warmth.

The opener was Livre pour cordes, whose abstractions I admired, but from afar. (The program notes characterize it as a “marvelous relic,” which might be apt.) Some of Boulez’s work just thrills me, such as his extraordinary Répons at Carnegie Hall just a few seasons back, and Notations, with its bracing, clanking rhythms. But Livre I found just a bit resistant, at least on first hearing. Scored for sixty players who are often muted, it lasts about twelve minutes, and undulates with typically transparent Boulez textures, before suddenly shearing off at the end. The LSO’s superb string players seemed to understand the work completely.

Bruce Hodges



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)