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Debussy, Boulez, Ravel: Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez (conductor), Barbican Hall, 4.11.2005 (AO)


Debussy   Jeux

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.

Two 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.

The 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.

After 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 work.

Having 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.


Anne Ozorio




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