MUSIC : Seventy, and still accelerating

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The Independent Culture
Pierre Boulez / LSO Barbican, London Robert Maycock has argued in this paper that so much French public subsidy has been channelled into organisations over which Pierre Boulez has presided, that French contemporary music today means little other than Pierre Boulez.

Fine snub, then, that Boulez has chosen to celebrate his 70th birthday in a spectacular series of concerts, not with a French orchestra, but with the London Symphony Orchestra.

The series that began at the Barbican on Sunday afternoon is an event to make you blink. With the munificent help of Takeda Chemical Industries, Boulez and the LSO are taking their roadshow around the world - Paris, Vienna, New York, Tokyo - with Barenboim, Pollini, Jessye Norman, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Kyung-Wha Chung and Rostropovich all in tow. Londoners do not know their luck in having these concerts on their doorstep.

It's not just the extraordinary high level of performer, it's the conception of the series. The concerts include Boulez's favourite music - Stravinsky, Bartok, Webern, Berg, Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen and, naturally, Boulez. It's music he has been conducting for years. But the authority, the clarity and the immediacy have developed palpably. It's hard to remember the days of Boulez the "traffic cop", when his seemingly mannered gestures were so often the butt of musicians' jokes.

Boulez took up conducting at the expense of composing (possibly), to bring more authority to the performance of contemporary work. Such a series as this underlines the intelligence of that decision, not just in terms of his breathtaking technical skills,but in the care of his concert planning, where one work illuminates the next.

Sunday's concert began with a meltingly lovely account of one of Stravinsky's most sensuous works, The Song of the Nightingale. With the sound-world of The Rite of Spring and The Firebird never far away, Stravinsky's soloistic use of the orchestra brought ecstatic playing from the LSO principals, while the juxtaposition with Boulez's own Notations (arrangements for a huge orchestra of four of his 12 early piano pieces) showed how far the two composers share the same orchestral palette. The LSO pla yed the final Tres vif-Strident - with its echoes of The Rite - at maximum heat. Seldom can Webern's Op 6 pieces - notes suspended in silence - have sounded so mellow, even if an underlying sense of menace is never far off.

Bartok's First piano concerto is seldom performed, and it's easy to see why. Every ounce of Daniel Barenboim's pianistic ability was taxed. Not even Boulez was able to keep the massive chords, thundering octaves and cataclysmic climaxes in rock-steady ensemble, and for split seconds the LSO, unusually, seemed to lose confidence.

n Series continues tomorrow (with Jessye Norman); Sunday (with Maurizio Pollini); 2 March (Kyung-Wha Chung); 5 March (Mstislav Rostropovich; 8 / 9 March (Anne-Sophie Mutter); all 7.30pm, Barbican Centre, London EC2 (071-638 8891)

Annette Morreau