Boulez plays Boulez

Sunday 14 December 2008

Two centenaries on successive days: Olivier Messiaen (d. 1992) on Wednesday, Elliott Carter (still alive and composing) on Thursday. On each night, Pierre Boulez conducted the Ensemble Intercontemporain in a commemorative concert in London.
I went to only the first gig. There have been Messiaen concerts going on in London all year, and I’ve missed all of them up until now. My main motivation for going was that Boulez is one of the few remaining survivors of the 1920s generation, so I thought I’d better take this chance to see him in action, particularly as he was conducting his former teacher, and his own music as well. I’d been to some concerts of Carter’s music before, and had heard most of the pieces on the Thursday programme before, so I gave that a miss.
The two Messiaen works were from the early 1960s, both premiered by Boulez: Couleurs de la cité céleste and Sept haïkaï. Both works put Messiaen’s taste for the hieratic and the ritualised to the forefront. The former is a static processional for winds, brass, piano and percussion, creating sounds suitably imposing, rather than seductive. The latter’s short movements show the influence of Messiaen’s visit to Japan; less, thankfully, in musical exoticism and more in an affinity with the sense of eternal time expressed in traditional gagaku court music. It’s a suprising piece for Messiaen, particularly in the dense passaages of unusually thorny textures.
After the interval (where we witnessed at the bar a distinguished lady of advanced years scull a large rioja, either to recuperate from the first half or to fortify herself for the second) Boulez conducted his own work from the late 90s, Sur incises. The piece is an expansion of his piano piece Incises into a work for a hyper-instrument consisting of three identical groups of piano, harp, and percussion. It’s all very nice, but it’s a little too typical of much of Boulez’s later music, and its obsession with the doubling (or tripling) and shadowing of instruments, from Répons onwards. Long, agile phrases of melody contrast with sustained moments of stillness, impeccably put together but always feeling a little to mellow. The intellectual and emotional punches of his earlier music are all being pulled here.
On stage Boulez, combover intact, was a model of self-effacement, even taking a detour round the back of the piano each time he walked to his podium. My lovely companion F, who has suffered under conductors of varying degrees of waywardness, admired the undemonstrative directness and lucidity of his conducting.