Prom 51, Royal Albert Hall, London

A perfect setting?
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The Independent Culture

Surrounded by an influx of major foreign orchestras even greater than usual in the Proms season, the BBC Symphony Orchestra came up with a programme typical of the good old days when Pierre Boulez was its chief conductor. Wednesday's well-attended concert also fell on the anniversary of the first appearance of his music at this festival 40 years ago.

Most enticing was the prospect of hearing a half-hour work by Boulez himself which, even by his standards, has a chequered history, related in detail by the composer in a compelling pre-concert discussion. The five settings of René Char called Le visage nuptial began life in 1946 as a work for soprano and alto soloists, piano, percussion and two ondes martenot. Even a revision of 1951-2 remained practically unperformable due, not least, to the quarter-tones it retained from the original.

Only in November 1989 was a further version premiered in London, and even this has taken 12 years to reach the Proms. Bouleznot only dispensed with the quarter-tones but also reconceived the polyphonic elaboration of the work's material in the light of hisby then considerable orchestral experience. His aim, as he put it, was to achieve something of the "space illusion" to be found only in the orchestral works of Debussy and some early Stravinsky.

This version of Le visage nuptial, with Françoise Pollet, Katharina Kammerloher and the women's voices of the BBC Singers, is one of Boulez's most successful compositions. Appreciating the ingenious variety of the setting is still difficult with poems of such elusive density. But moments of moving simplicity, such as the climax of the second song, act as pivotal points amidst the welter of lyrical and lustrous effusion.

Schoenberg's rarely heard Accompaniment to a Film Scene and Bartok's frequently performed one-act opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle completed this concert. There was much to enjoy in both performances. The scoreless Laszlo Polgar, as Bluebeard, was the epitome of inky blackness; Michelle DeYoung, who had the music but was not bound by it, proved an imposing if less consistent Judith.

Yet I detected more than a hint of that less good thing about the good old days: Boulez the conductor as clinical structuralist rather than penetrator of the music's emotional tensions and depths. Sandor Eles's declamation of the Prologue, in Hungarian and from the rear of the stage, seemed superfluous. But the performance was prefaced by a memorable Prommers' chant: "Arena to Bluebeard. Please go to Door 7, where your wives are waiting."

This Prom will be repeated on BBC Radio 3 next Wednesday at 2pm

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