Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Ensemble intercontemporain / Boulez @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

11 December 2008

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

The opportunity to commemorate a composer’s centenary is a rare occasion, and it’s even rarer when the composer is still alive and producing new works. However, Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday provided such an event, and was happily celebrated in this concert conducted by his friend Pierre Boulez.

One of the most remarkable features of Carter’s career is that almost half his output comes from his 80s and 90s, including all of the pieces heard in this concert. In a 10 minute interview filmed in his native New York and shown before the concert, Carter explained the background to some of the pieces and his thoughts about composing into his eleventh decade.

The evening commenced with Dialogues, a 15 minute piece for piano and chamber orchestra which was composed in 2003. The pianist was Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the instrumental accompaniment was provided by Boulez’s Ensemble intercontemporain. Carter’s writing for piano and orchestra in this work is harmonically and rhythmically angular for the most part, although leavened by some lyrical episodes. The performance featured brilliant playing from pianist and orchestra alike, ideally balanced under Boulez’s meticulous direction.

Three short solo piano pieces followed next, all written in the last few years. The first, Matribute, was requested by the conductor James Levine as a birthday tribute to his mother; the second, Intermittences, was named after Proust’s ‘Intermittences du coeur’; and the third, Catnaires, was written for Aimard. Of these, Catnaires is perhaps the most interesting, a rapid fire sequence of individual notes, differentiated by constantly changing pitch and accent. Aimard performed it at this year’s Proms, and his performance here was equally breathtaking, superbly conveying the energy of Carter’s inspiration.

The final work of Carter’s to be performed was his Clarinet Concerto, written in 1996 for Alain Damiens of the Ensemble intercontemporain. Somewhat unusually, the instruments of the orchestra are laid out in isolated groups, with strings to the left, percussion and brass to the rear, and woodwind to the right, and the soloist stands in different places during different movements. Rich with personality and colour, it is undoubtedly one of the great concertos of the 20th century. With Damiens himself performing, it would be difficult to imagine a more authoritative interpretation of the solo part, although Boulez’s precisely controlled accompaniment did make for a slight lack of mystery during the slower movements.

After the interval, Boulez conducted one of his own compositions, Drive II, which was originally conceived as a tribute for Carter’s 80th birthday. An earlier version that Boulez recorded for Deutsche Gramophon lasted around 25 minutes, but in 2006 he extended the piece to its current length of 45 minutes.

Although the work uses only 11 instruments, the inclusion of a vibraphone and a marimba add colour and weight. The unbroken thematic development, the constant variation of instrumental groupings and the complex layering of tempo relationships make Drive II less immediately accessible than the Carter works heard earlier. However, the work gradually takes shape in the listeners mind, developing interest and character as it progresses, occasionally evoking Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra. With Boulez directing, this was as definitive an interpretation as one is likely to hear.

buy Pierre Boulez MP3s or CDs
Spotify Pierre Boulez on Spotify

More on Pierre Boulez
Total Immersion: Boulez at 90 @ Barbican Hall & LSO @ St Luke’s, London
Ensemble intercontemporain / Boulez @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Pierre Boulez 80th Birthday Concert @ Barbican Hall, London