Following its Total Immersion day last month, the London Symphony Orchestra continued its Boulez at 90 celebrations with performances of two of Pierre Boulez’ most intriguing works.
The Livre pour cordes (Book for Strings) has its origins in the not-quite-finished Livre pour quatuor (Book for String Quartet) of 1948-49. While Boulez has a habit of not always completing his works, his capacity to revise and re-work them has the advantage of allowing him to develop and refine styles and forms, and helps to open up his music to new audiences. The Livre pour cordes (written in 1968 and revised in 1989) is a reinvention of the string quartet version rather than a mere transcription for string orchestra. Across its ten or so minutes the original musical material is subject to subtle shifts in texture and rhythmic impulses. Traces of Boulez’ one-time heroes Webern and Schoenberg are clearly discernible, and the strings of the LSO played with total assurance throughout.
Rituel: in memoriam Bruno Maderna is an entirely different sort of work. Dating from 1974-75, it ostensibly commemorates the life of Boulez’ friend and fellow composer and conductor Bruno Maderna. It also hints at the passing of their shared avant-garde ideals. Specific staging instructions call for eight groups of players: solo oboe, two clarinets, three flutes, four violins, wind quintet, string sextet, wind septet and brass ensemble. Each group has its own percussion ensemble, placed to the fore. Across these groupings musical ideas are exchanged, developed, discarded and renewed. Boulez’s intention was for the groups to ‘process’, as in a religious ceremony, sharing a sense of loss but reflecting individually upon in. The challenge for both players and conductor was to maintain cohesion within and between the ensembles, and to push forward a sense of momentum in what is a strangely anticlimactic work. In this they succeeded – assured collaborative playing by the LSO soloists and commanding but not over-controlled direction from Peter Eötvös.
In between the two Boulez works came an arresting performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – a work which Boulez, like so many others, has acknowledged as influential. This was a raw, unpredictable reading that focused on the violent subject matter of the original ballet scenario rather than its one-time orchestral innovations or its more recently emphasised folk material. Squawking woodwind, wailing trumpets and rasping double bass strokes created a deliberate sense of crude ritual. Occasionally Eötvös drove the tempi a little faster than usual. But this lent more credence to the idea of urgent sacrifice – the final flute breath of the victim, for example, was realistically cut short rather than drawn out before the final body collapse of the full orchestra. Dynamics, too, were pushed hard. True, there was the odd ragged moment, as in the imbalance between overpowering brass and strings in the final Sacrificial Dance, but this served to heighten the sense of primal savagery.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.