Composer, conductor, theorist, teacher: the talents of Pierre Boulez know no bounds. It’s far from hyperbole to say that no other figure has had such a prominent influence over the course of classical music over the last half-century; he links back to Schoenberg and Debussy, and his legacy is monumental.
Boulez is such a figure of subversion in the music world that it’s hard to believe he’s celebrating his 80th birthday. This concert saw him returning to the orchestra of which he was formerly music director, the BBC Symphony. But although the choice of programme was representative of Boulez’s interests, the concert sagged in several places, and it was a shame the orchestra couldn’t pull out a few more stops for him.
To begin we heard Debussy’s landmark ballet score, Jeux. Despite shimmering strings and a frenzied performance by the wind section (who excelled throughout the evening), this was little more than a pipe-opener. One could hardly sense the piece’s subversive elements, either musically or in terms of the plot (a vividly erotic tale of a ménage à trois).
More Debussy followed, this time the Trois ballads de Villon for soprano and orchestra. This was the low-point of the concert, with the soloist Elizabeth Atherton incapable of riding the sensuous orchestral textures that the BBC SO provided. The third song was more spirited and was sung with greater attack, but overall this was disappointing and, frankly, dull.
Boulez the composer was represented in a revealing and highly engaging performance of the cantata Le soleil des eaux (final version of 1965). This time Atherton sang with aplomb, getting stuck in to the complexity and sophistication of the score. She dealt well with the wide range of the vocal line and was strikingly confidant in the many unaccompanied passages. Here it was the BBC Singers that were depressingly woolly, letting the side down with a sloppy approach to rhythm and poor diction. The orchestral sonority was fabulous, however, and one could not fail to respond to the invention of Boulez’s evocative score.
The second half of the concert consisted of Ravel’s complete ballet Daphnis and Chloe (1909-12). There were many wonderful moments in which brass and wind soloists showed off their virtuosity and outstanding tone colours. But the performance failed us in that there was little overall shape. I believe this to be an inherent quality of the score, which was, after all, a stage work written to accompany a ballet. As Andre Previn showed us in his 75th Birthday Gala earlier in the year, the music works best in the concert hall when in the form of the orchestral suites – these select the moments with the biggest impact and ensure our interest is never lost.
It was a Boulez’s night, however, and the respect and admiration for him was apparent throughout. Master of the Queen’s Music Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was there with celebrated composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle to present him with a Fellowship from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters in the second half. And the standing ovation at the end acknowledged the stature of Boulez as a musical icon, even if the concert didn’t always live up to expectations.