Pierre Boulez is classical music’s reigning deity, and also its resident tyrant, inspiring love and hate in equal measure.
He earned the latter through his dictatorship at his research institute in Paris, where his Pol Pot-style abolition of music’s past – and his stigmatisation of any musician refusing to embrace his ideology – alienated the broad mass of music-lovers. What people failed to understand is that he loves to provoke.
Yet he’s created new forms and sound-worlds, and ushered in a radically transformed climate for composition. And his devoted work as a conductor of Wagner, Debussy, and Stravinsky has given the lie to the Pol Pot tag. But it’s now time that his own music - with its decorative surface and Oriental sensuality of sound - was released from the specialist niche to which its intellectual rigour has condemned it. That is why the Southbank Centre cleared its schedule last weekend for ‘Exquisite Labyrinth: the music of Pierre Boulez’.
The climax was a majestic performance of his masterpiece ‘Pli selon pli’ by the Lucerne Festival Academy Ensemble plus Boulez’s own Ensemble Intercontemporain with soprano Barbara Hannigan. The run-up was a series of concerts in which Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich took it in turn to play Boulez’s complete piano oeuvre, with Aimard providing a fascinating commentary. Since Aimard is Boulez’s adoptive musical son, and since he and Stefanovich are partners in life as well as at the keyboard, these performances were as definitive as it gets.
Aimard brought laser-like accuracy to the aphoristic ‘Notations’ and the first sonata, while Stefanovich brought her warmer sound to the second; the high-point of their collaboration came with a brilliant account of the ambiguities and layerings of the two-piano ‘Structures – Book 2’. This emerged as a giant improvisation, with hand-signals for cues, and its conclusion was dramatic. After a heavy barrage of cannon-fire in the bass from Stefanovich, Aimard gave a final delicate riposte, then they sat like statues for a minute, before the tumultuous applause.
‘Pli selon pli’ means ‘fold by fold’. Under the surgical precision of Boulez’s beat, and punctured by intermittent explosions of energy, this work became a feast of shimmering textures by struck, plucked, and blown instruments, with Hannigan’s sound serenely sailing over the top. Boulez, now 86, received his ovation like the conquering hero he is.