Homage à Boulez
There were those who used the occasion of Pierre Boulez’s death in 2016 to reiterate the same-old-same-old narrative about the man and his work. Boulez’s music was, we were told, frigid and aloof; but listening to these convivial performances of latter-day Boulez works such as Dérive 2, Mémoriale and Messagesquisse makes you wonder quite what all the fuss was about.
Does it make a difference that Daniel Barenboim is in charge, a conductor whose instincts were formed through his fixation with Wilhelm Furtwängler? Certainly Barenboim’s take on Dérive 2, Boulez’s serpentine ensemble work which reached its final version in 2009, is a world away from the aerodynamic, smooth-running version that DG included as a previously unreleased bonus in its 2013 Boulez Complete Works set. Barenboim and 11 players from his West Eastern Divan Orchestra add nearly five minutes’ duration to Boulez’s 43'59". The acoustic idiosyncrasies of the Royal Albert Hall (the performance was recorded during Barenboim’s Boulez/Beethoven residency during the 2012 Proms) would certainly have played into Barenboim’s tempo choices; but where Boulez offers a serene view of a craggy landscape as though filmed from an aeroplane window, Barenboim clambers over the rock face, kicking stirrups into harmonic landmarks and examining the jewels he unearths.
Performed in this manner, the gestural rhetoric of Boulez’s music plays out like an old-school adventure story – material accumulates force and impact, lines are explicitly accompanied, harmonies are leant upon for expressive affect. Messagesquisse (1976/77), for solo cello and cello ensemble, is expressed as a jaunty lollipop, complete with big ending; Boulez’s last word on the matter, recorded in 2000, again reveals something steelier and more objective.
Michael Barenboim offers an Anthèmes 2 noticeably less dour than his new studio recording (Accentus, 3/17), while Jussef Eisa transforms Dialogue de l’ombre double – which can be unrelentingly morose – into a light-on-its-feet Harlequin’s carnival. Le marteau sans maître – conducted by Boulez himself in 2010 – throws some period modernist roughage into the mix; another review I read described this performance as more ‘flexible’ than earlier Boulez performances but I’m not certain I agree. No one’s pulling any rhythms around or emoting but, true enough, this is a supremely relaxed and idiomatically confident performance by young musicians, none of whom are scrambling for notes or tripping over the time signatures. Hilary Summers locates herself more as an embedded ensemble member than soloist – and never has Boulez’s signature piece sounded more like an exacting sonic analogue of those fantastical René Char poems.