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Seen and Heard Promenade Concert Review

Prom 25 : Boulez, Birtwistle London Sinfonietta, BBC Singers, Susanna Mälkki (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London,  31.07.2007 (AO)


This Prom may well prove to have been a historic occasion, to be remembered in years to come.  First, works by two of the most important composers of our time were premiered. Secondly, this was the London debut of Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki, who has already shown such promise that she could, be one of the greats in time.  Even the least informed music lover will  have heard 'of' Boulez and Birtwistle and Boulez’s Dérive II in its various forms is already so well known that it’s hard to believe anyone with an interest in new music wouldn’t be keen on its latest incarnation.  So why was this Prom relegated to the ghetto of a late night performance ?  Why do far less valid works get high profile Proms and star billing ?

Fortunately there were enough in the know to make this a fairly well attended event despite the late slot, and there were some very big names in the audience, too. They were rewarded.  This was an electrifying performance, with the Sinfonietta at their best, inspired by some of the sharpest conducting I’ve heard in ages.

Boulez may be 83, but there’s more spirit and vivacity in him than many a third his age.  Composers have always revised their work, so that in itself is nothing new. But Dérive II is part of a more unusual process, for with each evolution, Boulez expands the initial ideas into distinctly new works. This piece could even be called Dérive III as it’s a substantial reworking, nearly twice as long as its predecessor, and even more complex. It’s not easy to take in on first hearing, but luckily the BBC provides repeats so that the more I’ve listened, the more I’m getting out of it.  Part of the fascination with Boulez is the way his music grows  organically, from different earlier sources, each piece enriching another.  And just as it helps to understand Mahler’s output as a whole to appreciate the individual symphonies, Boulez’s music is like a continuous adventure, a journey of exploration that defies fragmentation. For him, the essence of new music is that it is free spirited and open ended, allowing ideas to develop without rigid preconditions.  Creativity never “ends” and ideas progress as life itself progresses. Even if Boulez never writes another note (God forbid !) his music will live on, fertilizing the imagination of its listeners, expanding in their souls.

This music is extremely intricate, ideas interweaving and morphing into different forms, sometimes pivoting on a single note.  Although there are still only eleven instruments, they interact in layers and follow on each other, creating depth even though the basic line is clear and unfussy. The music is like a living organism, moving, unfolding, spiraling, like a plant shooting out of the soil, its tendrils unfurling, turning towards the light. Boulez may have a reputation for steely intellect, but this is surprisingly sensual music, exquisitely vivid and expressive.  There are even lyrical passages where snatches of near-melody flit past, tantalizingly elusive. The clarinet and violin parts - played by Sinfonietta stalwarts Mark van der Wiel and Clio Gould – are particularly intriguing, but are carefully integrated into the texture. Sometimes shapes arch, circle or are elliptical, so there’s a sense of movement and evolution, defined in subtle changes of metre.

Refreshing as this may be to listen to, it certainly isn’t easy to play. Much good mainstream music can stand up to indifferent playing, because audiences respond to the work being played and assume that if they enjoy it, it “must” be the performance. It’s almost impossible to do a dull Beethoven 5th  but music like this challenges all performers and stretches players to excel themselves.  It’s exhilarating to hear performances as inspired as this.  The Sinfonietta are of course masters of this genre, but Mälkki is exceptional.  Her style is incisive, reflecting a deep understanding of structure and relationships. She keeps textures lucid and navigates the tricky metre changes deftly.  Her signals are precise yet also intuitive.  Her hands weave shapes expressing the spirit of the music. Moreover, she anticipates what’s developing. Good conducting isn’t just beating time and marking entries, it’s leadership and vision.

Mälkki may not be well known in this country but that means nothing at all.  She was chosen as musical director of Ensemble Intercontemporain by some of the sharpest musical minds in the genre, and succeeds no less than Nott, Robertson and Boulez himself, its founder.  Ensemble Intercontemporain is formidable, one of the greatest new music ensembles of all and  Mälkki's lucid, incisive performances show real strength of character and creative integrity, the qualities of a conductor out of the ordinary.  If she can inspire Ensemble Intercontemporain as she inspires the Sinfonietta, we’re in for very exciting times indeed.

It was an all-Birtwistle concert that clinched Mälkki's appointment in Paris, so this performance of Birtwistle’s Neruda Madrigales was authoritative. Neruda’s poem, Ode to the Double Autumn, is minimalist, single words like “o” and “de” spaced alone, on separate lines. Birtwistle captures this unusual textural device in gaps and silences, evoking a spirit of timelessness and spirituality - hence the references to Monteverdi and to madrigals.  A cimbalom adds a muted steady pulse, while the strings create lovely washes of colour.  It’s a large piece built on simple foundations, but this performance made it convincing.

This was such an important concert that it really ought to have been given more prominence. It’s almost insulting that two of the greatest composers of our time are shunted off to a late night slot while far less edifying material gets prime time coverage.  What’s the logic ? Why should good new music get pariah status ?  It’s simply not true that Boulez and Birtwistle are unknown, or box office poison.  New music suffers from many unfair prejudices, so relegating music like this to the ghetto of late night Proms reinforces the idea that challenging music is somehow outside the pale. Furthermore, people living outside London, or dependent on public transport, are effectively excluded from going to Proms that end near midnight.  Maybe “popular” material has its purposes, but fibre and substance are important to long term musical health.  This is a very serious issue, and one which needs to be addressed in the spirit of the BBC’s mission to “inform, educate and entertain”.


Anne Ozorio

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, one of the longest established live music review web sites on the Internet, publishes original reviews of recitals, concerts and opera performances from the UK and internationally. We update often, and sometimes daily, to bring you fast reviews, each of which offers a breadth of knowledge and attention to performance detail that is sometimes difficult for readers to find elsewhere.

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