Classical: Only connect and all becomes clear

PIERRE BOULEZ: A PORTRAIT BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA RFH, LONDON THE FRENCH CONNECTION LONDON SINFONIETTA/ GEORGE BENJAMIN QEH, LONDON
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The Independent Culture
MONDAY'S ALL-BOULEZ concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis was originally destined for the BBC's studio in Maida Vale: a decision suggesting a sad loss of conviction. Roger Wright, the BBC's new controller of music, insisted on its transfer to the Festival Hall and the live broadcast of both this and Wednesday's London Sinfonietta programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall under George Benjamin.

Gratifyingly large audiences for both concerts provided an appropriate rebuttal to the view that few these days can be bothered with the more challenging kinds of new music. The notable absence was, in fact, that of Boulez himself: too busy composing, it appears. Wright's own illuminating interview with the composer was also televised on BBC2 late on Wednesday night: the first time in heaven knows how long that a new-music event conceived by the radio-based team has influenced the television schedules. Perhaps things at the BBC really are looking up after all.

The extended elaborations of "Eclat/Multiples", which opened Monday's programme, seemed far too protracted here, where Davis's relative lack of experience in the "traffic-cop" kind of direction this score requires also showed. Yet, while the BBC SO is not the orchestra it was when Boulez himself was its chief conductor in the early Seventies, this long evening gathered momentum. The Eighties revision of the early, at times almost endearingly engaging but also powerfully multi-faceted, "Le visage nuptial" - including splendid vocal contributions from Christine Schafer, Susan Parry and the women of the BBC Singers, as well as a huge orchestra - was notable for the control of its constant ebb and flow between lyrical effusion and volatility. After the interval came "cummings ist der Dichter" and "Notations I-IV", the latter receiving a scintillating account.

The second half of Wednesday's concert saw the British premiere of an already revised version of Boulez's recent "sur Incises" (on incisions). Though the combination of three each of pianists, harpists and percussionists is enticing, the alternation of basically static and faster types of musical material in much cleaner contours, both texturally and formally, could not sustain my interest during its now 40-minute span.

The premiere of Gerard Grisey's "Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil" (Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold), also 40 minutes long, made the Boulez appear lightweight. A "musical meditation on death", this sets four fragmentary texts - from modern French, Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Mesopotamian sources - for soprano (Valdine Anderson, intense and captivatingly lyrical) and an unusual ensemble of 16 players. Linking these extended, repetitive settings with the rapt rustlings of percussion, Grisey weaves an, at times, almost unbearably moving course through his mostly desolate texts.

Despite the more diatonic oscillations of the concluding lullaby, the work nevertheless cannot ultimately bring much consolation. The composer's own death shortly after completing it must not be allowed to deprive us of more opportunities to hear his music in Britain than we had when he was alive.

Keith Potter

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