MUSIC / A thoroughly modern maestro: Antony Payne acclaims Boulez's masterly way with the LSO

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The Independent Culture
PIERRE BOULEZ'S interpretative genius marked every aspect of the programme of Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky he gave with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in London on Saturday.

This was the first of two concerts featuring figures who have long been established in Boulez's musical pantheon, and it recalled those heady days in the 1960s at the BBC, when he brought to life so much modern music with which we had originally become acquainted in dry or merely dutiful interpretations.

One of his most impressive qualities as a conductor was present in the matchless performance of Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces that opened the concert, for not by the slightest move between movements did he allow the orchestra or audience to lose concentration and break the magical thread that holds the pieces in perfect balance. He was rewarded by playing of rare beauty, and by palpable audience intensity.

This selfless concentration led to music-making of the purest expression and sharpest focus. The difficulties that Schoenberg presents to the listener arise not so much out of his notorious break with traditional tonality and syntax, as from his essential complexity of thought and feeling. The resultant density of expression was marvellously clarified by Boulez, who made sure that every aspect of the teemingly inventive texture breathed naturally and was shaped by the players with care and sympathy.

Where Schoenberg's intricacies of thought serve a vision of calm in 'Vergangenes' and 'Farben' Boulez drew from the orchestra playing of a glowing serenity, while the motif-juggling of 'Peripetie', with its final explosion of images, became a boiling cauldron of feelings and speculations that the orchestra articulated with astonishing precision.

After the hypersensitive subtleties of Schoenberg's Expressionist manner, the stubborn insistence with which Bartok's First Piano Concerto works simple hard-edged materials to the bitter end created the most barbaric of contrasts. Daniel Barenboim delivered the fearsomely percussive piano writing with unquenchable power, pursuing Bartok's rapidly unfolding dialectic with the utmost concentration, and finding in Boulez and the LSO ideal partners in the testing process. The precision with which Bartok's unrelenting vision was realised was breathtaking in its impact.

No less impressive was the performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring that brought the concert to a blazing conclusion. Always one of the most impressive interpretations in Boulez's repertory, the work was recreated, typically, as if for the first time in a reading of laser- like intensity. The savagery of the surface gestures and richness of texture were tributes to the orchestra's range of sonority and splendid unanimity of attack. But underpinning the whole was the inevitable rhythmic undertow that stemmed from Boulez's commanding overall view of Stravinsky's intuitive processes.

The accumulation of tension towards the end of Part 1, exploding in a hair-raising performance of the 'Dance of the Earth', provided a perfect example of those interdependent characteristics, as did the rather different closing tensions that grew with grand inevitability out of the calm mysteries of the work's central span. Here the progress was all the more catastrophic for being held shudderingly in check, and the final wild flourish cut the music off with all the force of a guillotine.