What would the young Pierre Boulez have thought of a day-long celebration of one of classical music’s most enduring figures at one of Europe’s premier concert venues? Not a lot, probably. After all, this was the enfant terrible firebrand who once proposed blowing up opera houses and described composers eschewing 12-note serialism as “useless”. But times – and Boulez – have changed, and this ‘Total Immersion’ day of talks, films and performances at Barbican Centre venues provided a timely reassessment of the man and his music just days before his ninetieth birthday.
In a finely tailored programme of small- and large-scale works spanning seven decades, what struck most were the differences between Boulez’ early and later works, with the break traceable from the early 1960s. Take the ground-breaking Piano Sonata No. 2, for example. Completed in 1948, it first announced Boulez’ angry response to the destruction of the Second World War and his call to arms for a new kind of musical thinking. Young pianist Jean-Fréderic Neuberger effortlessly picked his way through the complex score, revealing what a shocker this piece must have been at its first performance by Yvette Grimaud in 1950. Even before the piano sonata, Boulez was out to smash and re-shape music. His 12 Notations for piano (1945) and Sonatine for flute and piano (1946) – played by Guildhall School pianist James Kreiling and flautist Rebecca Griffiths – shouted iconoclasm and rebellion, with their uncompromising harshness and almost sardonic adherence to 12-tone techniques.
By 1978 Boulez had orchestrated four of the Notations (no.s 1-4), adding a fifth (no. 7) in 1997. Extended in length and basking in shimmering orchestral detail, they became the sort of brilliant showpiece he would have despised 30 years earlier. Conductor Thierry Fischer (replacing François-Xavier Roth) clearly knows the work well, and he marshalled the large forces of the BBC Symphony Orchestra into a disciplined army of players, peeling away Boulez’s multiple layers of harmony and tonal complexity. The stridently rhythmic second and fourth Notations (respectively ordered fifth and third in the orchestral version) were particularly thrilling.
Boulez’ change in direction was already in evidence more than a decade earlier in Éclat (1965), which the composer later merged with Multiples (1970) to form one continuous work. The 15 members of the BBC SO under the very able baton of young Spanish conductor Pablo Rus Broseta oozed colour and light, aided by the exotic sounds of guitar, mandolin and celesta. As well as exhibiting the shift in the composer’s stylistic development, Éclat/Multiples also shows up the influence of Boulez’s musical heritage – something he would once have furiously denied. His sonorities and timbres are those of Debussy and Ravel, and the shadows of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern are everywhere.
Nowhere are these influences more evident than in the massive vocal and orchestral work Pli selon pli (Portrait de Mallarmé). First performed in 1960 but revised many times up to 2003, Pli selon pli (‘Fold upon fold’) is a massive work, lasting well over an hour and calling for huge orchestral forces, including a large battery of percussion. It explores five poems by Stéphane Mallarmé (of Debussy’s Faune fame), though it does not ‘set’ them in a traditional sense. Rather, words and sounds rise, fall and disappear amid a shifting sea of orchestral textures. It is a difficult work to pull off, and by and large Thierry Fischer and the BBC SO succeeded. Fischer’s direction was controlled yet accommodating, and the BBC SO players responded with musicianship of the highest order. Soprano Yeree Suh did not always have the strength of voice to rise above the orchestral melee, and her diction was occasionally blurred. But with its lengthy meanderings and curt ending, there is something unresolved about Pli selon pli. It is as though Boulez – ever the revisionist – hasn’t quite finished with it.