Lightning conductor

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The Independent Culture



MOST CONCERTS conducted by Pierre Boulez harbour at least one magical moment. On Friday night at the Royal Festival Hall the winning gesture fell mid-way through an evocative performance of "Fêtes" from Debussy's Nocturnes. The passage in question was an excited festival procession that starts out quietly between trumpets then explodes among themes borrowed from earlier on in the movement. When the trumpets first sounded, the sense of stillness in the hall was almost tangible - a rapt frame of silence.

It was the climax of an unscheduled "extra" that displayed the expected virtues of patience, clarity, rhythmic suppleness and carefully terraced dynamics. But it was a hard-won encore. I lost count of how many times Boulez marched on and off of the stage before giving his Vienna players the signal to start.

The concert opened to plucked string chords that were so soft as to be virtually inaudible. Anton Webern's Passacaglia pays homage to a Baroque musical form while ferrying us, stylistically speaking, out of the 19th century and into the 20th - hesitantly, then with mounting intensity. Not all the "hesitancy" was Webern's. A touch of confusion set in just after the opening bars, though much of the solo work later on was exceptionally distinctive and the final six variations climaxed to magnificent effect.

Boulez views the Passacaglia very much "of a piece", whereas Verklärte Nacht ( Transfigured Night) by Webern's teacher Arnold Schoenberg - presented in its lustrous full-string guise - was going nowhere slowly. Schoenberg's creative prompt was a poem by Richard Dehmel about sexual infidelity and reconciliation, and the music traces the poem's story-line. Boulez was at pains to clarify every change in metre, every textural contrast between solo and full strings. The resulting performance was more a cool-headed demonstration of plush post-Wagnerianism than a convincing musical narrative.

Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra was another matter entirely. In the "Interrupted Intermezzo" fourth movement, trombones and tuba revelled in their beery send-up of Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony, while the broadened brass chords just prior to the Concerto's last five bars were both unexpected and effective. The droll second movement featured some sonorous brass playing and the string choirs went hell-for-leather at the beginning of the finale. It was a "fun" reading, urgent and unbuttoned, and a welcome contrast to the somewhat sober "transfiguration" that preceded it.

It's hard to imagine that this mellowed paragon of artistic integrity will celebrate his 75th birthday next year. It's great to think that the South Bank will be marking the event with a "Boulez Birthday Weekend" (24-26 March 2000).