Debussy, Boulez, Ravel:
Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony
Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez (conductor),
Barbican Hall, 4.11.2005 (AO)
Debussy Trois Ballades de Villon
Boulez Le Soliel des Eaux
Ravel Daphnis et Chloé
This concert was the BBC’s
tribute to Pierre Boulez, with whom they have had a long relationship. He was principal conductor of the orchestra
in the 1970’s, and premiered several of his works in London. The Barbican Hall was packed. Many musicians who
are household names themselves, were present in the audience,
to honour a man who perhaps more than most has left his mark
on late 20th century music.
weeks ago, Charles Dutoit conducted Jeux with the Philharmonia. Rich
as Dutoit’s approach is, Boulez’s
is different, for he goes for its modernist soul.
This performance was more contemplative than the stunning
recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, but Boulez still showed
how the structure pf the piece pivots on subtle details.
The orchestral forces here are huge, but the meticulous
clarity of conducting kept the multiple layers distinct, showing
how Debussy used colour as form. His arms held out as if in supplication, he
drew from the orchestra a particularly moving final section. The “game” deftly winds down to harp, then tamtam, and suddenly ends, in silence.
orchestra shone, too, in the Trois ballades. Atherton is a worthy singer (as her singing
in Le Soliel
later would show) but here her diction lessened the overall
effect. Admittedly, these texts are in 15th
century dialect, but the texts are passionately ironic, even
violent, and could bear more expressiveness. Fortunately,
these were the orchestral transcriptions, giving the players
a chance to showcase the lively colours behind the vocal part.
The flute and oboe solos were especially lovely.
Le soliel des eaux was written
in 1948, when Boulez was barely 23.
Already, though, it shows his distinctive personality,
and still sounds strikingly original some sixty years later.
René Char was a surrealist, and a member of the French
Resistance. These poems come from a post-war political protest
and were published barely a year before Boulez set them. Here attention is on the voice, which leaps
up the scale, and turns capriciously, like the goldfinch’s
darting movements. Boulez
observes nature clearly – Messiaen taught him well.
Atherton was in her element now, gloriously. The high timbre suited her well and she shaped
the languor of the lines.
Drama is added with sudden flashes of orchestral interjection,
which the vocal part complements.
“L’homme fusille”, sings Atherton “cache-toi!” (man is armed, hide!), with emphasis on the urgent “cache-toi!”. The second song, La Sorgue, Chanson pour Yvonne, is a much
larger work, its powerful imagery condensed into barely five
minutes. The piece starts with a delicate otherworldly
weaving of wordless soprano singing, harp and vibraphone. Then the orchestra and large chorus surge in,
with the power of a mighty river unleashed.
The choral writing is so finely textured that individual
voices spread across the spectrum.
The idea isn’t that specific words should stand out,
but rather the impressionistic effect of multi layered sound.
This really is vocal writing as instrumental, where
the total image matters. It’s emphasised by the regular cries of “Rivière!” when the choir pulls as one, before
relaunching into the flow.
Also reversed is the conventional role of soloist:
the soprano’s contribution is to soar over and around the
massed voices, singing a line that is literally “beyond” words.
Boulez chose this piece, seldom performed live because
of its personnel demands, as his own tribute to the BBC Symphony
and Singers, who have made it one of their specialities.
the interval, Peter Maxwell Davies appeared, presenting Boulez
with an award from the Academy of British Composers.
Then, on walked Harrison Birtwistle.
What a moment that was, to see these three dynamic
personalities together. Birtwistle spoke of how he had, as a young man,
seen Boulez’s score for Le
marteau sans maître. He’d seen nothing like it before, and it became
his “rite of passage”
musically. Boulez was
an “immaculately uncompromising” composer and
conductor whose example showed the paucity of populist, surface
level music. “A concert hall is not a museum”, he added, for music like Boulez’s
“propels us into the
future”. Then Boulez, humbly and simply, went back to
the BBC Singers and Chorus on hand meant that Daphnis
et Chloé could be performed in
its full version, complete with chorus.
While we can appreciate the practicalities of leaving
it out, it is an integral part of the musical whole, adding
a not quite human touch. Though the chorus is wordless, repeating “oh”,
“om” and “oo”,
and humming, it serves much the same function as a chorus
in a Greek drama commenting on the action on stage.
It frames the structure.
After all, this is supposed to be a myth about Greek
gods, albeit refined through the prism of 18th
century French classicism.
Boulez effortlessly balanced the vast number of singers
with the large orchestra, achieving a real sense of Arcadian
idyll, a dream state as surreal as any fantasy.
The sense of heightened excitement was often so intense,
I wanted to move with the music: this was written to be danced to, inspiring
vivid memories of Fokine and Diaghilev’s
revolutionary ideas about ballet.
Modern and primeval at the same time, this was real
Boulez territory, and the orchestra gloried in it.
There was exquisite playing particularly from the strings. Indeed, Stephen Bryant’s violin solo was poignantly
expressive, as was the famous flute solo nearer the end.