Pierre Boulez

Wednesday 6 January 2016

[I originally posted this in October 2011, after going to Royal Festival Hall to hear Boulez conduct Pli Selon Pli with Barbara Hannigan, the Ensemble InterContemporain and the ensemble of the Lucerne Festival Academy. Almost didn’t get a ticket, thinking that Boulez’ temperament and taste had changed too much over the intervening decades to do justice to the work’s intransigent ferocity. The concert experience that night made me feel a little ashamed for having doubted.]

I take back everything mean I said about Pierre Boulez.

On Sunday night I sat transfixed through the entirety of Pli selon pli. I’ll let someone else gush over the details for me.

I couldn’t lose focus on the thing for a second. What the music had lost in vehemence was now regained in a controlled, hour-long explosion of energy that could alternately freeze or boil without ever resorting to histrionics or becoming self-absorbed in details. It’s linear, it’s dramatic, it’s big; it fulfils the contradictory wish for a radical gesture that signals a renewal of tradition. This was the future that would look much like the past.

For trying to kill Schoenberg, Boulez’s fate has been to become Schoenberg: an artist trapped by the past, his achievement obscured by his hard-won reputation. In a trait peculiar to French artists, too much of Boulez’s attention seems to have been caught up in pontification and politics. It’s surprisingly hard to hear the music for what it is, and not what it has come to represent. I now suspect that this, in a different way, is a problem that Boulez has had to grapple with too, and that Sunday’s Pli selon pli could be a type of triumph that had eluded him for so many years of revisions and re-recordings.

That second Improvisation is damn lovely. And I’m never taking Stravinsky’s quip seriously again. I wonder which other Boulez works are better than they sound?