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‘You can’t listen to it half-heartedly’ - Conducting Boulez and Benjamin: Mark Berry speaks to Geoffrey Paterson at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 31.1.2011 (MB)

This morning, I visited the Royal Opera House to interview Geoffrey Paterson, at present working there as conductor on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. We spoke before rehearsals for The Barber of Seville, on which he is assisting Rory Macdonald. Geoffrey is also hard at work with preparations for the forthcoming Linbury Studio Theatre concert of Boulez (Le marteau sans maître) and Benjamin (Upon Silence) from the Theseus Ensemble, which he founded and whose second concert I reviewed here.

I started by asking whether there was any significance in the programming of Le marteau sans maître for that most nauseating celebration in the calendar, St Valentine’s Day. ‘None whatsoever; it was simply the date in the Linbury we were given, though I think it can serve as a sort of anti-Valentine’s Day concert.’ Some of the imagery in Le marteau sans maître is highly erotic, though. ‘I’m not an expert on poetry at all, but the funny thing with the poetry here is that Boulez only really uses a few words.’ And of course, René Char’s verse isn’t exactly the most readily understood. ‘So you really have something like just an adjective and a noun, with a few verbs thrown in. But whatever you make of the poetry, it’s striking when you think that the whole idea of serialism for many people was the withdrawal of the composer and yet here is something so violent and unpredictable. I didn’t really know what to make of that when I first heard the piece. I can’t really believe that Boulez wanted to shoot himself in the foot or engage in self-critique like that.’ Though in many ways so-called Darmstadt composers were very keen on just that, especially with regard to each other’s works. It does come as a surprise though, after the total serialism of works like the first book of Structures. What perhaps most struck me when I first heard Le marteau was how beautiful, indeed ravishing, it sounds. ‘Yes, I think the first time I heard any of it was on an old interval feature from the BBC, a little black-and-white film. It was done in a very arty way, with the camera cutting. It was one of those rare things; very rarely does one hear anything that is completely unlike anything one has heard before. I didn’t understand it but I was utterly intrigued. That’s what I was so excited about.’

I recalled having had a similar experience with what, I think, was the first Boulez piece I ever heard, the Second Piano Sonata. I listened to Pollini’s recording and really did not understand what was going on, but could tell immediately that something was going on, which I wanted to understand. Odd bits I could discern, the Beethoven connection for example… ‘I actually heard the Boulez sonata before the Hammerklavier sonata. And I had assumed that it was at least hyperbole when people spoke about it being modelled on the Hammerklavier. And then it was really thrilling to discover that that was actually the case, and how it was the case.’ Maurizio Pollini, I remarked, will be playing the Boulez sonata in London in April: the date, it turns out, of the Royal Wedding. ‘It can be another anti-celebration…’

We then discussed the issue of rehearsing the Boulez and the stage that had now reached. ‘I’ve been rehearsing individually with some of the players. You really need to do that first. The players, even those who have performed a lot of contemporary music, are now having to play, in the pieces I am choosing, music that is even more difficult. The best thing, when you are dealing with music of such difficulties, even with the notation, is to go through it individually first, to work out what it all means. Some of it is so horrible to read; the notation is almost fetishistic. That is perhaps the greatest difficulty, though when it come to the viola part – I used to play the viola myself – that is the one verging on the unplayable, particularly when it comes to all of the double-stopping.’ The vocal soloist will be Louise Collett, singing the part for the first time. ‘I’ve known her for quite some time from working in Scotland. She’ll be singing Maddalena in Rigoletto for Scottish Opera this year. She is not a contemporary music specialist by any means, although she sang the Berio Folk Songs very well, but the vocal quality is so important here. We’ve been working through the score together and I’m delighted to be working with her.’

I then asked about the George Benjamin piece, Upon Silence, knowing it only by reputation. Geoffrey reminded me that it had originally been written for Fretwork, and then reworked by the composer for modern instruments, though very much with the intention that the original austerity, indeed a good part of the viol sonority, should be maintained; ‘the way he dulls the sound is very much part of the effect. It’s really an incredibly beautiful piece.’ Clearly this piece by a fellow Messiaen pupil will prove an intriguing companion to the main course of Boulez.

The conversation turned for a while to Boulez as conductor, since Paterson studied with him at the Lucerne Academy. It was interesting to note how eminently practical Boulez’s advice would be on matters of how to get tricky groups of seven or eleven right, always born of experience, sitting down and talking through how they might be heard, understood, and then fitted back into context. The ear helps of course too. ‘Of course, he seems to have pitch as absolute as possible. Mine has got much better and my relative pitch, which is probably more important, has improved a great deal. But Boulez can simply hear every pitch in a great orchestral chord and tell that the second horn is slightly out of tune, hearing the notes as pitches, where others might hear a chord and then try to work out which part of is simply out.’ I was put in mind of a similar situation when I heard Boulez rehearse Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in Berlin, when, at a climactic point in the first movement, he was somehow able to correct, ever so courteously, a slight infelicity of tuning from one of the clarinets.

Another experience was working with Péter Eötvös on Stockhausen’s Gruppen. Not just a matter then of being able to beat time at sixty-seven and a half beats per minute, or whatever it might be? ‘No, he would suggest that you sang it. I looked at him, wondering however you might do that. He suggested then singing the harp part. Because the point is that, in these pieces, you are not just there to beat time. If you can’t conceive of the different lines musically, you aren’t going to be able to communicate that to the players.’

It was a delight to learn that our conductor was also a great devotee of Strauss. Operatically, he has not yet had much opportunity, though he had played for an extract from Der Rosenkavalier, which we agreed was a much darker work than many recognise. The moment of the Marschallin’s return in the Third Act, and the straightforward but wonderfully apt cadential means with which it is announced was a particular favourite moment. With regard to the work as a whole, ‘just because it is placed in inverted commas doesn’t mean that there is a lot of what is there in Salome and Elektra’. And of course, those works have their inverted commas too. It was even better to discover an ardent fan of the Alpine Symphony, ‘Strauss at his most serious,’ and in some ways sparer, the ‘Ausklang’ less awash with notes than the earlier tone poems. The extraordinary historical accident of late Strauss being composed at the same time as Boulez’s First Piano Sonata, Webern and Bartók already having died, was not without its irony for those who admire those composers so greatly.

Alexander Goehr, from whose analyses I learned a great deal at Cambridge, was a formative influence for Paterson when an undergraduate there too. He took private compositions lessons with him for quite some time. One of the things he most admired, a word I have heard time and time again with respect to Goehr, is ‘integrity’, another ‘the refusal to play to the gallery, which is very important to me too’. Goehr said that he did not mind at all the style in which something was written, but taste, by which it seems that he meant that ‘integrity’ was crucial; he was critical of composers who had not thought through what they were doing or why, or who were playing for effect. ‘I’m immensely grateful for him making me think much more closely about my composition, though it slowed me down a lot. I don’t mean that in an ungrateful way at all; it was a very good thing. Now, like many people who start off composing, I have found myself doing less of that and more conducting.’

More generally we discussed the difficulties of a great deal of expression within ‘modernist’ works, the adjective being one of which Paterson is wary, since it can often put people off and should perhaps now be considered more historically. He is, he said, very attracted to complexity that is expressively necessary, to works that often need more than one hearing to reveal their secrets, ‘like my first experience with Le marteau sans maître’; after all, if one has heard everything in a work on a first hearing, there is nowhere left to go. (I thought immediately of a great deal of Shostakovich, but kept my thoughts to myself.) Schoenberg, I suggested, was another case of so much expressivity, more than many audiences still seem able to take, though they often reject his music claiming quite the opposite. Paterson’s criticism of some of Schoenberg’s music was tellingly similar to that of Boulez, namely that the new, serial language sometimes falls back upon old forms.

Returning to more contemporary music, we agreed upon a parallel problem to that of the term ‘modernist,’ namely the habit of more conservative listeners to refer to some new music as ‘tonal’, when that seems truly to miss the point of tonality. ‘Just to hear a chord that might appear in tonal music does not make the music tonal, since it does not have the same role at all. For instance, some of the chords in George Benjamin’s piece, though not of course in Le marteau sans maître and other pieces where composers avoid them, might sound like that in isolation, but this isn’t tonal music.’ Nor, of course, is complexity somehow something that appeared in the twentieth century, a favourite case of his being the complexity of the Eroica Symphony. For, in Paterson’s view – and mine – what matters here is what is done with and to the material. One might listen superficially and just hear a tune, but it is the processes that remain crucial, processes which, as he pointed out, are also so apparent in Haydn’s playing with form. Classical composers were not placing consonant chords around to be heard in themselves. The case of Debussy, I suggested, showed the difference: he would sometimes do just that, using chords to be heard, because of their sound; Mozart and Beethoven were certainly not in the business of doing that. With Schoenberg, however, and another Paterson favourite, Elliott Carter, listening in that way is simply not an option. ‘Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra is a wonderful, wonderful work, but you need to concentrate, to keep a sense of what is happening all the time. You can’t listen to it half-heartedly.’

The Theseus Ensemble’s next performance, of Boulez and Benjamin, will take place at 1 p.m., 14 February, in the Linbury Studio Theatre of the Royal Opera House (click here). Further details concerning the ensemble may be found here, and concerning Geoffrey Paterson here.

Mark Berry

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