Concert Review

Eötvös: zeroPoints, Ligeti: Violin Concerto, Bartók: The Wooden Prince London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, conductor Barbican Centre, London 27 February 2000

For the third, all-Hungarian instalment of this series, Pierre Boulez opened with a new work from Peter Eötvös, familiar to London audiences through his sterling work with the BBC Symphony in the late 1980s, but now established primarily as a composer. His flawed but absorbing opera The Three Sisters has recently been issued on [Deutsche Grammophon 459 694-2GH2]. zeroPoints is nothing less than a good old-fashioned concert opener, and a Millennium tribute that avoids its destiny, only to overshoot it with spectacular verve. Skilfully and invigoratingly scored, with tuned percussion to the fore, Hungarian associations came readily to mind. Its formal rigour was lightly worn, so that a playfulness came through even in the more inward episodes, making the effect one of a latter-day Dances of Gálanta. Maybe the nine sections would have sounded equally effective arranged differently, but the impact on the night was evident in a (surprisingly?) enthused audience.

Ligeti's Violin Concerto continues to infuriate and enthrall. Like the earlier Piano Concerto, this is music which conjures miracles out of 'trashed' minimalist gestures and ill-tempered intonation. Translucently scored for a 23-piece ensemble of soloists, it reassesses the tired soloist/orchestra relationship in new and unexpected ways; even the extemporized cadenza is elaborated only to be undermined and ridiculed at the close. Yet in the intense second movement, Ligeti wears his Hungarianess on his sleeve, as did Bartók in his Second Violin Concerto, while the agitated Passacaglia finally implodes in a haze of filligree and de-tunings - can ocarinas ever have sounded threatening before? The first movement continues to disappoint - why did Ligeti scrap the far more vivid original - but the concerto overall is a key work of the last decade, with a host of possibilities for the future. Christian Tetzlaff got the balance between studiousness and anarchy just right, while Boulez seemed to appreciate just how the proberbial spanner can work wonders for the creative psyché [his recording with dedicatee Saschko Gawriloff is indispensable on DG 439 808-2GH].

After such concentration, the all-round excess of Bartók's ballet The Wooden Prince, here given a rare complete outing, was all the more apparent. A rare success for the composer at its premiere in 1917, it overlays its strongly Hungarian themes and harmonies with a Straussian luxuriance that the composer would soon jettison. The symbolist scenario remains open to interpretation, but unlike that of Duke Bluebeard's Castle, the indulgence of the music makes the question of communication between individuals redundant. Yet there's an underlying sense of vulnerability, of yearning for the unattainable, which prevents a sense of self-satisfaction so common in the music of this period. Boulez really made this ramshackle piece happen on his 1990 Chicago remake [DG 435 863-2GH]; the LSO's performance was scarcely less immaculate and possibly more involving: they can rarely have played better. Bartók had to move on from this stylistic melée, and the sheer variety of sound is something he never again permitted, but for this final show of hedonism we should be grateful.

Richard Whitehouse

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