The Proms

BBC SYMPHONY / PIERRE BOULEZ Royal Albert Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
As was confirmed earlier in the year in a series of moving 70th- birthday concerts with the LSO, Pierre Boulez remains largely committed to the composers he has campaigned for from the very beginning of his conducting career. If he has added few names to the pantheon he first established in the Fifties and Sixties, the vitality of this repertory and its deep seriousness, in a word its greatness, were illuminated once more at the Prom he conducted with his old orchestra, the BBC Symphony, on Tuesday. The programme was absolutely characteristic of him - Bartok, Debussy and Messiaen, together with an early work of his own, Le Soleil des eaux - and the freshness of his approach to the music justified his long-standing preoccupation with it and his unwavering faith.

Opening with Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Boulez immediately provided proof of his renowned aural meticulousness, so shaping and weighting the elegantly chromatic, asymmetric lines of the opening fugue that they floated on their way with total freedom while never blurring the exquisitely conceived harmony. It is a work that has fascinated Boulez from his earliest days, predating even his passion for the Second Viennese School, and he never fails to respond anew to its combination of intellectual rigour and dance-like simplicity, revealing much to those who think of him only as an austere and hard-line intellectual.

At the end of the programme, answering Bartok's string sonorities with its apocalyptic use of large wind ensemble was Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. The composer thought of the monumental utterances of its five movements as suitable for vast spaces, even for performances in the open air or on mountain heights. Perhaps there is more of visionary dream here than of practical reality, yet the Royal Albert Hall, which sometimes seems to encompass some huge outdoor space, provides the perfect environment for the work, and on this occasion Boulez's taut control of its static columns of sound allowed them to vibrate with overwhelming splendour.

This provided one of the highlights of the concert, with warmly sonorous playing by the orchestra's wind and brass choirs, but no less impressive was a marvellously poised account of Debussy's Jeux, that breathtakingly intricate masterpiece which, after decades of neglect and devaluation, was resurrected by Boulez and the post-war avant garde as pointing the way to new structural thinking.

Continuously unfolding, ever transforming, evolving, never exactly repeating, Jeux ushers us into an endlessly fascinating world of spirit and feeling. The listener can never seem to pin down its fleeting processes, yet they were miraculously shaped by Boulez and his players, with tempo and texture in a constant state of flux.

Next came a rare opportunity to hear Debussy's magically re-creative orchestrations of his songs, Trois Ballades de Villon and Le Jet d'eau (the normally reliable Phyllis Bryn-Julson a little out of sorts for once), and they were followed by a scintillatingly textured Le Soleil des eaux, music of sensuous appeal and challenging vigour, to which the BBC Singers contributed memorably - altogether an evening to cherish.

n Tonight's Proms: Elgar, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Rachmaninov 7pm; Bach 10pm, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0171-589 8212) and live on BBC Radio 3