Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Boulez @ Barbican Hall, London

11 May 2008

Pierre Boulez takes us on a thrilling exploration of neuroses with the LSO; a trio of works with symbolism at their core makes for an exhilarating evening of music-making.

Boulez and the LSO have enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership over the years and on the basis of this thoughtfully-programmed, wonderfully-executed concert it seems as though the love affair looks set to continue for many years to come.

Boulez belies his years (he was 83 earlier this year) and is as exacting on the podium now as he was in his youth. He conducts without a stick yet his style is wonderfully clear. Many commentators conjure up words such as cool and calculating when analysing his approach to certain works but that’s as maybe. He’s no preening popinjay on the podium yet the results he produced with the LSO on this occasion had a white-hot intensity from start to finish, and he was rightly rewarded with a standing ovation from a capacity audience that had been drawn by a testing programme of works which are not exactly what you’d call crowd-pleasers.

The concert began with Schoenberg’s Die glckliche Hand a dark journey into a man’s psyche which exists in an existential conflict between love and art. It’s scored for massive orchestra, off-stage 0rchestra, baritone soloist and a choir of 12 voices which takes the listener on an even more convoluted journey than its companion piece, Erwartung. Schoenberg plunges the listener into a world of dreams of the nightmarish variety and provides very little respite during the work’s 20 minute length.

The offstage band plays vulgar theatre music whilst the amplified choir express themselves mostly in sprechgesang. The result is unsettling and ambiguous to say the least are the voices real or in the mind of the protagonist? Peter Fried was the troubled soloist whilst Boulez drew out every strand of Schoenberg’s kaleidoscopic orchestration for us to hear. Both shattering and disturbing in equal measure.

This was followed by the UK premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s Osiris. The 37 year-old German’s style has a lyricism that reminded me of Turnage, with its trumpet rifts, Bluesy-style and vast array of percussion, yet Pintscher’s musical voice comes across as distinctive in its own right. He created an aural tapestry that was made up of vivid writing for all the sections, particularly the percussion. It’s a work that deserves repetition and contains none of the brutal modernity that so much contemporary German music seems to encompass.

After the interval we were treated to a coruscating performance of one of the greatest works of the 20th Century namely Bartok’s one-act opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. We’re back in the world of half-spoken truths and imagery as Judit, Bluebeard’s latest wife, attempts to unlock the doors of Bluebeard’s castle, thus unlocking his past. Peter Fried’s Bluebeard conveyed a sense of world-weariness through vocal means alone by deploying his implacably ink-black voice to chilling effect throughout. Next to him Michelle de Young portrayed a febrile, inquisitive, Judit, using her luscious mezzo-soprano voice with the utmost musicianship, and in the process provided a wealth of vocal colour as she traced her journey from ingnue to resigned-bride. The orchestra glistened under Boulez and the wall of sound that mirrored the opening of the fifth door set the pulses racing. This was music-making on an exalted level, and confirmed that Boulez is peerless in this repertoire.

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