MUSIC: Riding out the storm

LSO / Pierre Boulez Barbican Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
Sunday's clouds certainly set the scene for the last in the current lap of LSO Boulez 70th-birthday concerts, first as etched by Debussy and then - above and beyond the gladiatorial sparring of Bartok's Second Piano Concerto - in Boulez's own Le Visage Nuptial. Francoise Pollet and Lucy Shelton sang Rene Char like migrant birds - converging, separating or blending into the multi-coloured flock of the London Symphony Chorus. High chimes suggested secular Messiaen, and when the words "soared aimlessly amid a dogged fear" detonated a musical thunderclap, Boulez contrived the perfect response: a sullen processional. It was a wonderful moment in a work where echoes of Wagner tailed Stravinskian austerity, and the closing pages spelt unfathomable mystery. Boulez had initiated a searingly intense "happening" and the audience responded with benevolent - if not entirely convincing - applause. Char himself would surely have chuckled when, amid the tumult of confused appreciation, a keen photographer insisted that two youngsters pose for snaps in the middle of a gangway, while up on stage Mme Pollet plucked a rose from her bouquet and presented it to Boulez.

Twenty minutes earlier, and the audience had raised the roof when Michel Beroff rattled off the frantic final measures of Bartok's Second Concerto. True, Beroff's furious display seemed partially fuelled by his having to change piano stools at the last moment; yet, once appeased, the elegant Frenchman was champing at the bit. He drove hard but skilfully, his tone a brittle monochrome, his spindly fingers racing and curling at every hurdle; and when the murderous first-movement cadenza finally arrived, he whipped up a real frenzy - and never mind about the odd botched chord. The second movement's eerie outer sections were more elegant than rhapsodic, but the central Scherzo certainly gave the LSO winds a run for their money: at one stage I seriously wondered whether they'd keep up. Best of all was the last movement, where the lad on bass drum grasped two sticks, landed a deafening thud and prompted a no-holds-barred home straight, with fearsome virtuosity from Beroff and a big, rhetorical account of the climactic brass fanfares.

And to think that all this thunder followed Debussy's "Sirenes", a mobile, keenly inflected account, with a warmly blended chorus and absolute clarity. It was the high point in a performance of Nocturnes where the second piece, "Fetes", had little of thefestival about it. "Nuages", though, was properly grey and secretive; a cool, swift, translucent affair, pensive in mood and unexpectedly reminiscent of the interludes in Pelleas et Melisande. It was the one piece in the programme where we could actually hear everything we saw, and proved a potent augury of what was yet to come.

Next LSO / Boulez concert: 2 March, Barbican Hall, London (071-638 8891)