Music: Boulez: the iceman melteth

Pierre Boulez - a Portrait RFH, SE1 Boulez: `Sur Incises' QEH, SE1 Bartk: `Bluebeard's Castle' RFH, SE1 Songbook 98 Wigmore Hall, W1
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Most certainties in life are really standard-issue fictions - the fiction of the doctor who obscures his guesswork in professional mystique, the fiction of the judge who claims not to be making law, merely applying it. And among the most pernicious is the fiction of the artist who defines his work with rules and manifestos that purport to legislate on creativity.

Few artists of our time have been so manifesto-driven as Pierre Boulez. During the 1950s and 1960s, he rarely missed an opportunity to tell the world how music had to be. Such was his dedication to polemical activity, it's surprising that he ever found the time for composition.

By the 1970s, when he had taken on conducting responsibilities with two major orchestras - the BBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic - his output of new creative work had actually reduced to modest proportions. So his oeuvre is compact, and its small number of elaborately-wrought, high-profile scores make it comparatively easy to assess.

It also fits neatly into that God-given format of our time: the mini- festival. In fact, it even fits the mini-mini-festival, as exemplified this week by the BBC's neat collation of two live-broadcast Boulez concerts, a couple of radio talks, and a television interview in which the iceman melted nicely for the cameras under questioning from Radio 3's Controller, Roger Wright.

The first thing to say about all this is that it's a shining example of the BBC doing its duty and doing it well. The performances - on Monday by the BBCSO at the Festival Hall, and on Wednesday by the London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - were superb. The packaging was good. The Beeb can be obsessive about Boulez, forever poised to celebrate the time when he was allied to the Corporation, but you can understand why. It was, after all, a time during which he seemed to pull the pendulum of world interest along whichever path he took.

A quarter of a century on, though, and that pendulum tracks different names. Boulez's musicianship is not in doubt - he has the sharpest ears on earth - and his place in the cultural pantheon of the 20th century is assured.

But the rules and manifestos which he laid down as the necessary future of music - "necessity" has always been one of his favourite concepts - no longer read so persuasively. Serialism has proved a significant but transient contribution to modern art. The "total" serialism (of rhythm, dynamics and instrumentation as well as pitch) that Boulez championed in the 1950s proved so stifling of expressive energy that even its own champion failed to see it through.

To hear a rapid retrospective of the kind offered by last week's BBC initiative is to appreciate the paradox that has governed Boulez's life and work throughout. In all his interviews and writings he has sold us certainties: a rigorous code for the creation of the artwork of the future. In his music, though, that certainty has never been delivered. So uncertain is the nature of Boulez's music that most of his works have no fixed form, no set parameters - they're famously unfinished. And for all his efforts to make a virtue of their unfinished state - positioning them as works in progress, subject to continuing refinement - his reluctance to sign them off and move on tells its own story.

Take the four works in Monday's concert. Visage Nuptial is Boulez's choral masterpiece, and an uncommonly sensual statement for a composer who works more from the mind than the heart. It was written in the 1940s then adapted in the 1980s. e e cummings ist der dither is from the 1960s, revised in the 1980s. Notations began as a piano score in 1945, then was turned into a much-enlarged orchestral sequence in the 1970s, and is still unfinished. clat/Multiples began as a small-scale Sixties exercise in contrasted sonorities (the clat); it was extended in the 1970s by the addition of the first of a projected series of commentaries on itself (the Multiples); but it also remains unfinished.

And so it continues through to Sur Incises, the latest Boulez score, which was originally heard last year at the Edinburgh Festival and was played in Wednesday's Sinfonietta concert. Officially a "new" chamber work for nine instruments, it's actually a commentary on a pre-existing piano piece - and yet another example of the quiet irony with which Boulez, arch-apostle of the new, clings to his own past.

Of course, the revision of old works is no crime in itself. To hear, and enjoy, the exuberance of Notations is to be grateful that it made the journey from the piano to the orchestra. The refinement that results from Boulez's adjustments to his scores over the years can be miraculous: a combination of Ravellian exquisiteness with the forensic, every-note- counts gravitas of Webern.

But revision can also blunt the edge of an originally fresh idea. Personally I'd settle for clat without the Multiples. The nine added violas blur rather than intensify the force of that original "burst". All credit there to Andrew Davis, whose conducting of players from the BBCSO sailed through the technical complexities of the piece and made everything seem so easy. From the radio talk Davis gave last week on the subject of conducting Boulez, it's clearly nothing of the sort.

Bernard Haitink made another blockbusting appearance with the LPO last weekend, following up his Mahler 9 of the week before. This time it was with Bartk's Bluebeard's Castle; and, whereas the Mahler had been radiant but reticent, this Bluebeard had real impact. It also had a depth and resonance beyond all expectation in the dulled acoustic of the RFH.

The London Philharmonic were on richer, more completely finished form than in a long while. And the cut-dead climaxes at the opening of the fifth door - effects that should ideally feel like taking a machete to a thousand-volt electric cable - registered with shattering force. That it completely overwhelmed the singers, Petra Lang and Kolos Kovats, was a pity; but you can't have everything.

That said, a concert at the Wigmore Hall last Thursday came with nearly everything, including one of the most original programming ideas I've encountered in a long while. It was an entire evening of new songs, put together regardless of genre - art song, showbiz, jazz - or any other consideration except merit.

And, as the compiler/ presenter/pianist was Richard Sisson - the Donald Swann-ish half of Kit and the Widow - it came packaged with cabaret camp, and filled the house. For a night of new songs, this was extraordinary.

That most of the art numbers were school-of-Samuel Barber and most of the showbiz ones school-of-Sondheim was predictable. But this was unobjectionable when it produced settings like Ian Venables's ravishing response to Edna St Vincent Millay, Julian Phillips's brilliant "Bestiary" after Emily Dickinson, a sassy jazz collaboration between Benjamin Till and Arnold Wesker (!), and - not least - some gems by Sisson himself.

The singers included Sarah Walker, dressed not so much to kill as to massacre, and a show-star waiting to be born called Leigh McDonald. With the makings of an annual event, the Sisson Songbook has arrived to stay.