Classical music: A heart-felt tribute to whom?

LSO / Boulez- Barbican, London

"I don't know who's conducting," said a neighbour to her companion. You get a different class of audience at a Jessye Norman event. What would it make of the toughest piece in the entire Pierre Boulez 70th birthday series? The LSO, carefully ratio ning the maitre's own music to one piece a night, slipped in Livre pour cordes at the start of the sure-fire public draw and, right on cue, another neighbour had begun muttering by bar six. Applause was polite, though, and tinged by the warmth with which both the conductor (as conductor) and the orchestra are currently regarded in London.

No wonder, because they had delivered playing of a refinement and spirit that were inconceivable when Boulez first made this version, nearly 30 years ago, of music that string quartets had found even harder. Here it was, revealing atmospheric textures and delicate shadings straight out of the fin de siecle - the previous siecle, that is. The logic and pace of thought, not to mention the harmonic idiom, remain as formidable as ever, but the old sound of a struggle to survive has faded. With it , too, hasgone some of the danger and violence, the passionate glare that characterised the young Boulez.

It's still there when needed in the performance of the music he champions: Berg and Bartok, on Tuesday. For Berg's Seven Early Songs, it wasn't forthcoming; but then, with Jessye Norman on stage, the air is charged with too many strong qualities for the rage of an angry young man to get a look in. In any case, the songs themselves, written in Berg's early twenties but revised later, always sound steeped in decadent sensuality, the more so when the voice projects them with such ample power, relishing words as much as melody. Against that, the orchestra continued to produce breathtaking subtleties at a steady, unexciting pulse. All the elements were exact, but they didn't gel; the Wagnerian sumptuousness needed less matter-of-fact sup port.

Berg's Altenberg Lieder brought them together. Less lavish and more extreme, the sharply focused instrumental sound builds with greater sureness and breadth and drew intensity as well as precision. Norman remained superb, dramatic, intimate; the orchestra entered a new dimension. Boulez's extraordinary ear was in its element, interpreting what might easily be a half-heard whisper as a musical utterance of perfect balance, right on the edge of sound.

In Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin, it realised an equally perfect balance at the opposite edge of sound. The neighbours were looking sceptically at each other again during the noisy prelude, but if they ever heard so much detail again amid the hectic activity of this score, they would be lucky indeed. Boulez kept up the electric charge of the previous songs and drew a positively rhetorical swagger from the bellowing brass at the moment when the ballet's central figure makes his entrance. It di dn't quite last the duration; the final few minutes, after the frantic silent-film-style chase, lost some of the tension and vividness. But, as sound for sound's sake goes, an exceptional encounter all the same.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test