Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra/Boulez @ Barbican Hall, London

30 April 2008

We seem to be blessed with great octogenerian conductors who show no signs of surrendering their hold on the orchestral scene or the public’s affection.

Maybe the most impressive of all is the master of modernity, Pierre Boulez, now in his 84th year and not only a great conductor but one of the towering figures of contemporary composition.

His talents in both areas were amply demonstrated here.

From tentative steps which introduce the protagonists, Bartok’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion soon blooms into full orchestral glory. Percussion stalks the piano soloists like over-eager understudies, the pianists too covering each other. Now one, now the other takes the lead until the third movement when they dance arm in arm, the orchestra slipping and sliding behind them but never managing to upstage. What a magnificent work from a composer who sadly still struggles to reach a wider audience.

Surely it’s distinctive use of percussion such as this served admirably by Neil Percy and Nigel Thomas that seeps into Boulez’ own works like the early masterpiece Le marteau sans matre. Regular partners, Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the latter much in evidence in London this year with the South Bank’s Messiaen shindig and soon to take over the Aldeburgh Festival, dazzled as piano soloists.

Bartok’s work was written originally as a sonata for piano and percussion and he expanded it as a showpiece for himself and his wife, creating thicker and richer textures. Boulez’ Notations is also fleshed-out from a skeletal beginning. Written for solo piano, five of the original 12 pieces were orchestrated by him, firstly for chamber ensemble and later for full orchestra. As piano works, they’re aphoristic, Webernesque statements but the later versions are full-blown transfigurations that excite and attract in equal measure. The final one, Notation II, is marked Trs vif Strident and it lives up to the description, a hell-for-leather whirl of dynamism and colour.

Between these two works, the fattening process was reversed, with a dieted, pared-down version of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale. A three movement distillation of the opera, Chant du Rossignol, the most exotic contribution of the evening, is a virtuoso display from the 20th Century’s great entertainer. There are plenty of opportunities for star solo turns and the LSO rose to the challenge under Boulez’ forthright guidance.

The programme was made up with a searing performance of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces. From his earliest phase of atonality, the work recalls the turmoil of its near neighbour, Erwartung, angsty outpourings interspersed with stretches of great serenity. Schoenberg may have been playing with form at this stage but there’s no loss of emotional content.

The jubilant audience was rewarded with a reprise of Notation II, a clearly popular choice. The LSO and Boulez return to Barbican Hall the Sunday after next with an even more seductive line-up: Schoenberg’s Die glckliche Hand, Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Osiris, a UK premiere by Matthias Pincher. Pounce on the chance to see this enticing combination of great orchestra, conductor and repertoire while you can.

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