Classical Music: Sounding the Century Royal Festival Hall, London / Radio 3 / BBC2

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Eric Hobsbawm's remarkable account of the 20th century is called The Age of Extremes. This might have been a rather better title for the BBC's valiant celebration of the music of this century - Sounding the Century - which began its mighty course on Sunday (in an overflowing Royal Festival Hall) and will run to the millennium.

There are few works that remain banging in the head hours after they've been performed, but Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring just won't let you go. What a piece! More than 80 years ago, it caused hysteria in Paris; today, it is met by whistling, screaming and shouting from kids who might as well have been in a rock club. In this demonic work, Stravinsky surely presages the beat, pulse, energy and abandon of rock music that no one has bettered. Of course, you need a leader to set the pace, and who better - but, in a sense, who stranger - than Pierre Boulez? If, compositionally, Boulez has ever been allied to a camp this century, it would be to Schoenberg, not Stravinsky, but such is the way history flows. Boulez is now writing little, but he makes a gigantic impression in the conducting of works of such complexity that one is left open-mouthed wondering how anybody did it before. Just what did that Paris audience experience in 1913? Taking the BBC Symphony Orchestra by the scruff of the neck, Boulez shook as much violence out of this piece as I can ever remember. But not a note of it was propelled for any other reason than that was how it was written.

How the orchestra responded. The score calls for eight horns. What a blazing row, with all eight plus a "bumper" lifting their bells! But it is strange that Boulez remains so outwardly unmoved; he shrugged off the monumental ending of Part 1 as if he'd just been taking a stroll along the river. But of course, that is his secret - never a gesture that requires more energy than that suggested in the score - and he remains totally scrupulous to it. The dynamics, the colouring, the voicing, the perception - they all make Boulez one of the greatest conductors of our time.

Sunday's programme was his choice - his acolyte, George Benjamin, remains chief steerer for the whole BBC project - and if The Nightingale (in its full operatic version) and The King of the Stars tell us more about Stravinsky than the rest of the century, a certain point is perhaps being made. Stravinsky appears to have won in the main battle of aesthetics that has mapped out this century's music. But it is too bad that Schoenberg wasn't allowed into the ring for the first round. How illuminating might it have been to dump the admittedly ravishing The Nightingale in favour of the nightmarish Erwartung.

As it was, a strong cast of scoreless soloists - Ewa Malas-Godlewska, Helene Perraguin, Jean-Luc Chaignaud, Wendy Hoffman, Askar Abdrasakov, Neal Davies and Wolfgang Bunten - graced The Nightingale, while the BBC Symphony Chorus was in fine form, particularly for the fragmentary The King of the Stars.