Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Aural Choreography and the Threshold: Boulez's Répons

Ensemble Intercontemporan and Matthias Pintscher after two performances of this work at the Salzburg Festival, 2015

(This essay was first published as a programme note for the Salzburg Festival, 2015)

In retrospect, and perhaps even at the time, Répons seems or seemed to mark a new phase in Pierre Boulez’s compositional activity. Long accused – unfairly and uncomprehendingly – of having taken refuge in his conducting activities, the composer, fresh from leading performances of the Ring in Bayreuth and the premiere of the three-act version of Berg’s Lulu in Paris, responded to a commission from South-West German Radio for the Donaueschingen Music Festival with this large-scale work for six soloists (cimbalom, first piano, xylophone/glockenspiel, harp, vibraphone, piano 2/synthesiser), sizeable chamber orchestra (two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, two violins, two violas, two cellos, double bass), and live electronics. (Not, of course, to forget the conductor!)

That first version, begun in 1980 and performed in 1981, was about seventeen minutes long; a version about twice the length was heard at the BBC Proms the following year; what we shall hear tonight (twice, in different seating arrangements, so as better to appreciate the work’s – and performance’s ‘aural choreography’) lasts almost three-quarters of an hour. It remains a work-in-progress, Boulez’s original ‘intention’, for whatever that might be worth, having been to create a work of full-concert length. The score as it stands, gives the date, tantalisingly as ‘1981/…’, and Boulez, in a 1988 interview Peter McCallum kept his counsel concerning ‘completion’: ‘Well, at one point, the work will be finished, but I don’t know when exactly.’ Ever one to seek literary parallels, he went on, ‘I compare it with Proust, whose novel just expanded and expanded. … I still have to add chapters, but at the same time, what is written is definitely written and will be part of the final work.’

Répons was also Boulez’s first work, arguably the first masterpiece by any composer, to be realised in the studios of IRCAM, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), which is itself far from the least of the composer-conductor-thinker-agitator’s achievements. Having been invited in 1970 by Georges Pompidou to create a centre for musical research and creation, that had been another of the urgent tasks triumphantly achieved during the 1970s, whilst Boulez’s detractors sniped at an alleged falling away from composition. 1981 marked, not coincidentally, both the Répons premiere and the full advent of the ‘4X System’, consisting of eight processor boards, each of which could independently be programmed to store, to manipulate, and to recall digitised sound waveforms, that is, as Boulez and his IRCAM collaborator, Andrew Gerzso explained, in a 1988 article on Répons, ‘sequences of numbers that correspond to the air-pressure fluctuations of a sound’. Also of crucial importance was the Matrix 32: ‘basically a programmable audio-signal traffic controller, routing audio signals from the soloists to the 4X and from the 4X to the speakers’.

It is worth quoting further from that article by Boulez and Gerzso, as a way in both to electronic music more generally, to this work in particular, and to this first, but not last, collaboration between the two (subsequent collaborations would be on Dialogue de l’ombre double,  explosante-fixe…, and Anthèmes 2):

Composers have had essentially one medium through which to express their musical ideas in a form an audience can appreciate: the sounds that musicians can elicit from traditional instruments. With the advent of computers and other equipment for processing digital signals an entirely new means of musical expression has become available. A composer who applies these electronic devices is bounded only by imagination in creating an ‘orchestra’ of sounds.

Music that seeks to integrate computer-generated sounds with traditional instruments presents a great challenge to a composer. Not only must the composer express musical ideas convincingly but also he or she must do so in a manner that is readily translatable into both mediums. Moreover, the ideas must be resilient enough to be passed back and forth between the two mediums during the course of a performance. Otherwise the listener might wonder what role the computer was meant to have in relation to the other instruments and be puzzled (and perhaps even repelled) by the lack of coherence.

Exploring possible musical relations between computers and traditional instruments requires much communication between composers and those who design computer hardware and software. Through such collaboration, electronic devices can be constructed that serve the composer's immediate purpose while preserving enough generality and flexibility for future musical exploration – a task complicated by the fact that the composition's musical complexity is usually not commensurate with the technical complexity needed for its realisation. What appears to be a simple musical problem often defies an easy technological solution. Perhaps for the first time in history a composer has to explain and formalise the way he or she develops and manipulates concepts, themes and relations in a musical context in order for technicians (who may have little musical training) to bring them into existence. These are the kinds of problems we confront at … IRCAM.

Problems and opportunities, then – as ever, with technological advances in the history of music. It certainly did no harm, though, that Gerzso was – and is – certainly not a technician with ‘little musical training’, but rather a musician with a thorough grounding in both composition and, as flautist, performance. At present, he directs teaching at IRCAM, as well as coordinating interaction between the institute’s artistic and scientific activities. Experience of Répons, and the musical challenges it presented, will have done no harm in preparation for those roles, for it is equally crucial to note the challenge that musical problems issue to technology, as well as vice versa. ‘Coordination’ is perhaps the crucial word in the institute’s title, and is equally crucial to our understanding of Répons.

Let us turn more strictly to the work itself. Répons refers to ‘responses’, in this case to responsorial Gregorian Chant, precentor and choir in alternation. That sets up two relationships to be explored within the work: one between soloists and the instrumental equivalent here to the choir, and also the spatial element brought about by physical separation – and movement in space of the sounds heard. Boulez disavowed in that 1988 interview the spectacular for its own sake – one hears this also in, say, his supremely musical performance of a work such as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – and said that what interested him was ‘this relationship between pitch, form, space, and time … which affects the very writing of the piece in every detail.’ And so, ‘the writing for the orchestra in the centre, for instance, is very different from the writing of [sic] the soloists at the perimeter, because – and this comes from my experience as a conductor – I know that when players are close to you they can follow your gestures immediately.’ 

One must have one’s wits about one to ‘follow’ the quasi-expository Introduction; yet, following everything in a single performance is no more possible than it is in Wagner. It is more advisable to inform oneself up to whatever point one wishes, and then to enjoy, to let the piece take one where it will. Entrance of electronics will inevitably direct aural – perhaps, visual – attention towards the periphery, the location of the soloists and speakers. (A ‘possible seating plan’ follows a compendious list of ‘Production equipment to be provided on site’ in the score.) Different instrumental attacks and decays in turn have different implications for sound transformation.

One example of maintenance of coherence between instrumental and electronic worlds, to which Gerzso draws attention in his booklet note for the CD release, is that of the soloists’ arpeggiated chords. As the soloists take their turns, so are the chords in turn transformed by electronics, ‘in such a way that the arpeggiated chords are themselves arpeggiated. The overall result of the soloists and the transformed sounds together is that of an arpeggio of an arpeggio of an arpeggio.’ Moreover, the pitches of the successive arpeggiated chords themsevles are all ultimately derived from a seven-note vibraphone chord, through familiar operations such as transposition and combination, each instrument taking from another and yet remaining in touch with the first. Oppositions multiply and, in a sense, attract. Meter returns, joining and indeed transforming his earlier works’ opposition between ‘smooth’ (chaotic and irregular) and ‘striated’ (regular, repeated notes) time; so does ‘symmetrical’ harmony. Ornamentation and proliferation – the SACHER hexachord ever in the background, not necessarily to be heard – abound.

Think again of that phrase ‘aural choreography’ – and there is surely ‘visual choreography’ in perusing the score alone. Though stereotype may still present Boulez in fierce, polemical, ‘Darmstadt’ mode, he has an exquisite sense of fantasy; indeed, he collaborated with the ‘equine choreographer’, Bartabas, on performance s of The Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms. More fundamentally, the spatial element is crucial, just as in Stockhausen’s Gruppen – another work now ‘traditionally’ performed twice – or in the Venetian works of Giovanni Gabrieli. Gerzso has rightly spoken of a ‘never ending mirror-effect’; electronic transformations respond to instrumental writing, and ‘a chain of answers crosses over to … [the domain] of electronic writing.’ It induces both anxiety and exhilaration that one will never quite hear the same performance, never quite hear the same ‘work’ twice; such is the essence of music as well as its history, in which Boulez more clearly than ever takes his rightful place.


That returns us to technology. Boulez largely kept his distance from earlier electronic music, suspicious of the inhibiting, even imprisoning, effect pre-recorded tapes had upon performance. We need not condescend toward, for instance, Luigi Nono’s  …sofferte onde serene…, nor indeed to Boulez’s own experiments of the 1950s; as we attain our distance from them, they too take their place in the mutable canon. However, the reassertion of performing contingency, enabled by the advent of ‘real-time’ transformation technology, heralds the late twentieth century’s most distinguished composer-conductor’s crucial first foray into this world. Selecting a single masterpiece from Boulez’s œuvre is as foolish as it would be for Mahler’s; Répons nevertheless looms over his subsequent work, just as Le Marteau sans maître had before. Répons has become, if not quite ‘the threshold’, as Boulez once said of Webern, then a crucially important staging-post in the history of modernist music.

'From the Heart': Beethoven's Missa solemnis

(This essay was first published as a programme note for the Salzburg Festival, 2015, for a performance given by Concentus musicus Wien and Nikolaus Harnoncourt.)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Mass for Four Solo Voices, Choir and Orchestra in D major, Op. 123, ‘Missa solemnis’

If ever there were a musical work surrounded by an aura, it would be Beethoven’s Mass in D major, universally referred to as the Missa solemnis. Wilhelm Furtwängler considered it Beethoven’s greatest work, but gave his last performance in 1930, thereafter considering it to be beyond his, and perhaps humanity’s, capability to perform. Theodor Adorno, who devoted a good deal of attention to the work, argued that, ‘to speak seriously of it [the Mass] can be nothing other than, in Brecht’s phrase, to alienate it; to rupture the aura of unfocused veneration protectively surrounding it.’ It was, then, Adorno contended, an ‘alienated magnum opus’; it enjoyed ‘the highest fame, has its undisputed place in the repertoire, while remaining enigmatic and incomprehensible and, whatever it may conceal within itself, offering no support for the popular acclaim lavished upon it.’

As so often, Adorno proves both spot on and wrongheaded; such, one might almost argue, is the nature of his dialectical method. There is certainly a sense in which the Missa solemnis remains at least one of the ultimate musical challenges; it was such even for Beethoven himself. And yet, in performance worthy of the name, it overwhelms, especially so for an age that finds it at least as hard as Beethoven himself to take the claims of the Church, above all those adumbrated in the text and tradition of the Mass, simply ‘on faith’. Beethoven’s struggle may initially be perceived in the time it took him to compose his setting. It was intended, when he began composition in 1819, for the installation of his great patron, pupil, and friend, the Archduke Rudolph, as Archbishop of Olmütz. ‘The day on which a High Mass composed by me will be performed during the ceremonies solemnised for Your Imperial Highness will be the most glorious day of my life,’ Beethoven wrote to Rudolph. The deadline, 9 March 1820, came and went, however, and Beethoven was still making changes to the work when the presentation copy of the score was being prepared, in spring 1823. No complete performance took place in Vienna during Beethoven’s lifetime, although the first three movements were performed at the Kärntnertor Theatre on 7 May 1824, at the same concert in which the Ninth Symphony received its performance. (Imagine that!) The Mass, however, had been performed a month earlier, on 7 April, in St Petersburg, in a concert postponed several times, owing to musical, especially vocal, difficulties, as well as late delivery of the score. Performances remained sporadic, at best, until the 1860s; their posthumous reputation notwithstanding, the late quartets were performed with considerably greater frequency.

Adorno noted that, despite the ‘occasionally unusual demands on the singers’ voices,’ something of an understatement, the Mass ‘contains little which does not remain within the confines of traditional musical idiom.’ Certainly, harmonic progressions are not in themselves difficult to analyse, or indeed to perceive by the audience (or congregation). There are archaisms, harking back at least as far as Palestrina, to whom Beethoven had devoted a good deal of study, arguably also to the Flemish composers of the fifteenth century, but, whilst audible, they do not really stand out. Rather, to quote Adorno once more, ‘the difficulty is of a higher order – it concerns the content, the meaning of the music.’ The Frankfurt School sage pointed to ‘the aesthetically fractured quality of the Missa solemnis, its renunciation of clear structure in favour of a question, of almost Kantian severity, as to what is still possible at all.’ In a conversation book, we see Beethoven exclaim: ‘“The moral law within us and the starry heavens above us” – Kant!!!’ It is not unduly fanciful to see a parallel, whether it be a matter of influence or no, with elements of Kantian philosophy in this work. Kant had pointed to the inability of theoretical reason to ‘prove’ the truths of religion. One must look elsewhere, to the moral law – just as Beethoven does in the immense struggle he here not only depicts but also undergoes. It is not easy, especially as a fallen man, but it is unquestionably necessary.

What, then, is the nature of this struggle, encapsulated in Beethoven’s unique formulation, written above the Kyrie, ‘From the heart – may it return to the heart!’? It is, by the standards of the other movements – and we may consider this a symphonic work enough for ‘movement’ not to be an inappropriate term – relatively ‘normal’. Orchestral sonorities are, as William Drabkin has noted, related to the tonality of the movement. Horns generally conform to the constraints imposed upon them by the overtone series, far more so than in many of Beethoven symphonies, or indeed in later movements of this work. Kettledrums sound implacable throughout, as if intoning Holy Writ, or even trying to persuade us – and Beethoven – of it. As Sir Colin Davis commented in an interview given shortly before his final performance of the work in 2011, ‘You may not believe it immediately afterwards, but it [the work] doesn’t survive unless everybody is committed to it.’ There may already be a sense of grand(-ish) scale, but there is little of the superhuman strain we shall hear later on. An almost Classical movement offers, in Drabkin’s words, ‘reassurance early on,’ so that ‘the listener is better prepared for what is to come.’ It is indeed a twin inheritance from Bach, whose Mass in B minor had finally been published in 1818, and from Haydn which may be said to be dramatised here. The old, Baroque ‘cantata mass’ division of the threefold petition – ‘Kyrie eleison/Christe eleison/Kyrie eleison’ – is challenged by the sonata form example of Haydn’s late masses, and vice versa.

There is nothing remotely ‘normal’ about Beethoven’s setting of the Gloria, long a difficult text to set, if only for its length. (The same might be said of the Credo.) Again, Beethoven offers more than a nod to Classical practice, yet also, almost through force of will, or so it seems, blows the apparent tripartite division of the text if not quite to pieces than to somewhere beyond repair. It opens with a thunderbolt; we fancy that we hear not a description of the heavenly throng itself singing the Almighty’s praises, but that singing itself. Beethoven’s utterly personal solution to the problems of both Mass setting and belief is propelled by titanic, orchestrally- and harmonically-founded strength, such as heard with the chorus’s ‘Domine Deus, Rex cœlestis’. Hints of Mozartian Harmoniemusik upon ‘Domine Fili unigenite Jesu Christe’ are gratefully received, though we are never in doubt that Mozartian paradise has been lost for ever. An imploring ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis’ seems almost to signal Beethoven kneeling – at the name of the one person or force before whom or which Beethoven would ever kneel. The ‘Quoniam’ presents a precarious balance - or better, dialectic – between certainty and uncertainty or downright despair. At the close, there is reprise, if not repetition, of the electricity of the glorious cries of the opening, a final choral shout of ‘Gloria’ reinventing the recapitulatory principle.

Nowhere is Beethoven’s struggle with belief more manifest than in, appropriately enough, the setting of the Creed. Credo quia absurdum (a perennial misquotation of Tertullian)? The plainchant and Renaissance polyphony in which Beethoven had immersed himself come to resound as if through history, if not eternity. Echoes of what we now call early music sound especially clearly upon profession of the mystery of the Incarnation, human soloists and flautist differentiating beyond doubt the Second from the First Person of the Holy Trinity. One feels, as in a Bach Passion, the unbearable agony of Gethsemane and Golgotha upon the word of suffering, ‘Passus’. Beethoven’s compassion expressed for Christ as man seems to evoke Fidelio, and yet at the same time to extending beyond its earthbound confines, indeed to point to Kant’s ‘starry heavens’. Partly as a consequence of Beethoven’s notoriously difficult vocal writing, the question remains: does he, do we, believe? The uphill sense of struggle, almost a literal expression of ‘ascendit’ and yet of course meaning so much more than that, is valiantly, vigorously worked through in an ‘Allegro molto’ section, until a return to the oft-intoned ‘Credo’: in this case, belief in the Holy Ghost, but seemingly more a matter of belief as such. The final fugue dazzles, both as profession of (momentary?) conviction and as contrapuntal compendium, both reminiscence and intensification of the dialectical conflicts in the finale to the Hammerklavier Sonata. 

Beethoven marked the Sanctus, as he had the Kyrie, ‘Mit Andacht’ (‘with devotion’). Sung by the solo quartet, it is, in Donald Tovey’s words, ‘a short intensely devout movement, ending with a note of the kind of fear that would be cast out by perfect love’. Following a brief ‘Osanna’, there comes the purely instrumental evocation of the Elevation of the Host, and the descent of the Holy Ghost in the guise of solo violin: a masterstroke that in lesser hands might have sounded sentimental but here instantiates sublimity itself. It offers, moreover, musical transition to the ‘Benedictus’ section, which, for Adorno, touchingly called to mind ‘the custom attributed to late mediaeval artists, who included their own image,’ in this case related to a theme in the E-flat major String Quartet, op.127, ‘somewhere on their tabernacle so that they would not be forgotten.’

Finally comes the Agnus Dei, in dark B minor, permitting eventual, hard-won return to the tonic, its relative major. The sounds of war, trumpets and drums ablaze, heard before in Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli, but here let loose with modernistic fury, terrifyingly recall the recent experiences of Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe and look forward to our own unstable world, interior and exterior. We are taken to the abyss. Will the Lamb of God grant us ‘pacem’? Perhaps. An apparent reference, intentional or otherwise, to Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus – Beethoven once considered adding his reorchestration to Mozart’s – has suggested to some English listeners intervention from the Duke of Wellington; its scope is surely more universal. There is still no more modern setting of the Mass; it alienates itself in its fervent attempt to wrest reconciliation from the jaws of despair. And yet, that aura cannot entirely be disrupted; nor, perhaps, should it be.

Developing Variation: From Wagner to Boulez

(This essay was originally published as a programme note for the Salzburg Festival, 2015, for a concert given by members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim. How I wish I had gone, rather than suffering Claus Guth's Fidelio!)
RICHARD WAGNER • Siegfried-Idyll for Chamber Orchestra, WWV 103
ARNOLD SCHOENBERG • Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E for 15 Solo Instruments, Op. 9
PIERRE BOULEZ • sur Incises (1996/1998/2006) pour 3 pianos, 3 harpes et 3 percussions-claviers

Gwyneth Jones and Peter Hofmann in the 'Centenary' Ring, conducted by Boulez

Wagner-Schoenberg-Boulez: it is a teleology worthy of any of those three, highly teleologically-minded composers. Both Wagner and Schoenberg are composers who have featured heavily in Pierre Boulez’s conducting, compositional, and polemical life; all three are crucial figures to Daniel Barenboim too, and indeed to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. In this programme, however, we can hear not only inspiration but also the need to go beyond, even to disavow. ‘Schoenberg est mort,’ was Boulez’s celebrated, if, in all but the most literal sense, premature claim in 1951. Parricide, though, has long been a guiding principle of the Western ‘classical’ tradition.

Wagner had declared both his lineage in Beethoven’s example and the necessity of its overcoming by positing his music dramas as the successors, perhaps even the only successors, to the symphonies of his revered predecessor. An early, C major Symphony (1832), is a better work than detractors, or mediocre performances, permit, but is ultimately too imitative to stand entirely on its own two feet. There is also a fragmentary E major Symphony from two years later, and there are various sonata-form works for piano. The Siegfried-Idyll, however, remains in a different class. Moreover, for all Wagner’s ongoing worship of Beethoven, it is not an especially Beethovenian, or even sonata-principled work – and is probably all the stronger for that.

Thematic material is taken from the final scene of the third act of Siegfried, often considered the ‘scherzo’ – Beethovenian terms die hard – of the Ring. Composed in late 1870, the Tribschen Idyll with Fidi – the present title seems not to have been used until 1877, coined for a performance in Meiningen – is subtitled, on the autograph score, ‘Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, presented as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting to his Cosima by her Richard, 1870’. Which is what happened on Christmas Day, in gratitude, as a short poem makes clear, for the birth of Siegfried Wagner the previous year. Beethovenian dialectics are largely eschewed in favour of a formal conception of development rooted in Wagner’s own musico-dramatic ‘endless melody’, albeit without words. If anything, it is Liszt’s symphonic poems – Liszt being Cosima’s father – that come to mind as progenitors, a poetic ‘idea’ made manifest in music.

Not only does this lullaby of peace, joy and world-inheritance, to employ conventional leitmotif references from the opera, present a (hopeless) spur to our imagination with respect to the post-Parsifal ‘symphonies’ Wagner often envisaged, yet was never granted time to write. It also shows how Wagner’s mature compositional method could, despite the claims of detractors and some admirers alike, adapt and even renew later-nineteenth-century symphonic form. Carl Dahlhaus, writing of Wagner’s music dramas, admirably described the composer’s leitmotif technique as ‘the binding together of a music drama through a dense web of motivic connections from within’. Such, in place of Beethoven’s symphonic goal-orientation, viewed by many modernists with suspicion, offered the prospect, subtly realised here, of instrumental music founded upon similar principles. Indeed, a gradual, if far from complete loosening of association between concrete objects and motifs in the music dramas – the Ring the high water-mark, Tristan and Parsifal freer in association – had already done part of Wagner’s work for him. Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg would be two of his, and Liszt’s, most important successors. Moreover, what Schoenberg would analyse in earlier music, particularly but far from exclusively that of Brahms, as ‘developing variation’ is certainly present in Wagner’s expansion – prophetic also for Boulez’s technique of ‘proliferation’ – of his opening motivic material.

Liszt, Wagner, Strauss, and Brahms certainly vie, most productively, for attention in Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, one of the composer’s sunniest, indeed life-affirming works. It follows the sonata-form example of Liszt’s Sonata in B minor for piano, radically integrating the traditional multi-movement sonata/symphony structure – Sonata Allegro-Scherzo-Slow Movement-Finale – into the traditional structure of a single sonata-form movement: Exposition-Development-Recapitulation. Another important predecessor is Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, which Liszt edited, re-wrote, and transcribed (both for piano and orchestra, and for two pianos). Equally important as such formal considerations, which undoubtedly help account for its exhilarating concision, are instrumentation and harmony. In the more commonly-played original version for fifteen solo instruments – Schoenberg would later arrange the work for full orchestra, as Wagner had intended to do with his Idyll – there is a significant shift away from the string-saturated, or at least string-founded, textures of the Romantic symphony (Brahms) or late Romantic symphonic poem (Strauss). At the same time, that technique of developing variation, which Schoenberg avowedly derived from Brahms, but which was also present in his Wagnerian inheritance, and an almost-but-not-quite Expressionist tinge upon Strauss’s harmonies contributes to the historical and formal struggle. The opening horn calls signal to the possibility of constructing harmonies upon the interval of a fourth: present in late Liszt in Mephistophelian guise, but perhaps more commonly associated with subsequent experiments by Bartók. 

And yet, a symphony this undoubtedly remains, far more so than Wagner’s Idyll. Schoenberg was always as much conservative as radical; indeed, it was, he would claim, to maintain the supremacy of German ‘tradition’ that he would soon feel compelled by historical necessity to take the fateful steps he did, first renouncing tonality (although he would, not unreasonably, reject the term ‘atonality’), and then developing his twelve-note method. We are not there yet; the tonality of E major remains a guiding principle, as do modulation and key relationships. Op.9 offers as inventive a solution to the problem of the twentieth-century symphony as Haydn had to a genre he may not have invented, but which he surely transformed into the force with which Beethoven, Wagner, and ultimately Schoenberg would have to reckon. With the Second String Quartet, op.10, however, Schoenberg – and we – would feel the air of another planet.

Boulez’s relationship towards much of Schoenberg has long been ambivalent, even prior to that article of 1951. That despite the fact that few, if any, performers can have consistently, persistently done so much for his music; perhaps Boulez’s only rival in that respect would be Schoenberg’s son-in-law, Michael Gielen. It is, Boulez has long insisted, a short period in Schoenberg’s œuvre, that of so-called ‘free atonality’, prior to the composer’s turn to dodecaphony, which most interests him; and yet, he has continued to perform, in most cases, highly persuasively, later as well as earlier works, remaining the only conductor to have recorded Moses und Aron twice. Brahmsian influence is, at bottom and somewhat to simplify, what most concerns Boulez in the work of the later Schoenberg. For him, at least, it is Wagnerian tendencies that remain more fruitful – hardly surprisingly, given the preponderance of Wagner in Boulez’s operatic repertoire, and the importance of both Wagner and Mahler for later works such as the orchestral Notations.

sur Incises, like many of Boulez’s works, has its seeds in an earlier work. Just as Wagner would take problems, whether musical, philosophical, or both, which had arisen in previous works as starting-points for subsequent explorations – and indeed, just as he used material from Siegfried for the Siegfried-Idyll – so Boulez has, sometimes repeatedly, returned both to material presented in earlier works, and in some cases, to earlier works themselves, in order to expand them. This exploration falls into the former category. Incises is a piano piece written (1994, revised 2001) for the Umberto Micheli Piano Competition (with which Maurizio Pollini, long an advocate of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata, had a strong association), is a brilliant, toccata-like work, written with typical éclat. Boulez first intended, as he explained in an interview of 1998, to ‘transform this piece into a longer one for Pollini and a group of instrumentalists, a kind of piano concerto although without reference to the traditional form. … Therefore, I produced a piece for three pianos, assuming that there already exists enough interesting literature for two pianos and ensembles, especially in the modern age – take for example Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. (In my opinion, everybody would have been reminded of this world if I had also written a piece for two pianos.) I have also considered the possibility of four pianos as this constellation is very attractive and provides a good balance.’ Then, however, the siren call of Stravinsky – that great anti-Wagnerian, long also considered Schoenberg’s antipode – and especially Les Noces suggested another path. As Boulez remarked more recently, in 2010, ‘This is the reason why I ended up with three pianos - incidentally three pianists are part of our ensemble [Intercontemporain].’ There were likewise three percussionists in the ensemble, and subsequently, the idea of adding three harps occurred to him, an idea rendered more attractive by his use of the instrument in Répons.

It would be possible to say much more about its genesis, and indeed its different versions, but the work itself, even as work-in-progress – Boulez’s conception of serialism as ever-expanding, open-ended, means that many of his works remain in this state – requires more immanent attention. The spatial element is crucial: we hear solo lines but also different groups: three groups, considered vertically, each of percussion, harp, and piano, and, considered horizontally, the three percussionists, the three harpists, and the three pianists. A startling aspect of the latter formations is to hear passages transferring spatially across, say, the three pianos, whilst remaining in a sense part of the one giant piano, played, as it were, by the conductor. It is as if Boulez plays with a musical magical square, three rows and columns constantly shifting, and yet always adding up to the required total, even if we do not know what that should be. Then there are the beguiling sonorities: Boulez offers harmonies of Debussyan – again, one might say, post-Wagnerian – sumptuousness. Listen also for the Romantic tinge to the piano writing; Boulez has long admired the expansion of the instrument’s capabilities by composers such as Liszt and Chopin. A kinetic, rhythmic energy brings to mind Stravinsky and Bartók. Indeed, that distancing from the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion notwithstanding, Bartók’s ghost seems present in some of the piano writing, contagious for the other instrumentalists. Despite the sense – and, perhaps for some of us, the desire – that this universe might continue expanding forever, its material in perpetual proliferation, the conclusion, whose surprise I shall not reveal, proves decisive. At least for now.

‘Austro-German’ Symphonism and ‘National Style’: Synthesis and Originality

Holy Roman Empire, 1789

(This essay was first published as a programme note for the Salzburg Festival, 2015)

FRANZ SCHUBERT • Overture “in the Italian Style” in D, D. 590
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART • Symphony No. 38 in D, K. 504, “Prague” Symphony
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN • Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36

Bright open strings, trumpets, drums: such are the stereotypical associations of orchestral works in D major, perhaps especially during the Baroque and Classical periods. Schubert’s D major Overture was the first of two such works he composed ‘in the Italian style’, although that tag was not Schubert’s own, added after the event by his brother, Ferdinand. At any rate, the influence of Rossini – also to be felt in the composer’s Sixth Symphony, on which he began work in 1817, the same year that he wrote these overtures – is the reason, although such influence can readily be exaggerated, and often has. There is certainly a Rossinian surface to the work, especially in its orchestral crescendo, doubtless inspired by the first performances of Rossini operas in Vienna the previous year; nevertheless, form remains typical of ‘early’ Schubert. Both he and Rossini, of course, owed a good deal to Mozart. If the prominence of the woodwind might suggest Rossini, it might equally be a nod to Mozartian Harmoniemusik, or it might simply be characteristic of Schubert. Likewise, one might hear Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in the transitional repeated notes between opening Adagio and the main Allegro giusto, or one might simply think of the way paved for Schubert’s later symphonies. There is certainly much ‘Viennese’ charm, not so characteristic of either Rossini or Beethoven, and a good deal to compare with Schubert’s later writing, not least his music for Rosamunde. Accented notes are characteristic; so are the introduction’s modulations. The coda, moreover, may be heard to offer presentiments of the ‘Great’ C major Symphony. Whether ‘Italian’, ‘Austrian’, or simply Schubert, the Overture is a splendid curtain-raiser – fully worthy of hearing, especially in an age such as ours, in which concert overtures have become strangely unfashionable.

‘Nationality’ is, according to inclination, either a fraught or a supremely irrelevant issue for Mozart and his music. Was he ‘Austrian’? Only in an anachronistic sense, for Salzburg would not become part of Austria until 1805, and then initially only for four years. ‘German’? That is how he tended to describe himself, as did many others within the Holy Roman Empire: in many respects, more a (frustratingly slow) legal system than a state, whose crown Joseph II declared only to be worthwhile on account of the troops it brought him. Prague was generally considered just as much a ‘German’ city as Vienna, and it was, famously, a source of great happiness to Mozart. But there was nothing narrowly nationalistic to his works for that city or elsewhere; Don Giovanni and the ‘Prague’ Symphony owed a great deal to Italianate models too. Indeed, a hallmark of eighteenth-century German cultural identity was its proud, cosmopolitan receptiveness to varied styles; and Vienna remained a celebrated haven for Italian musicians. Prague itself offered early performances of Die Zauberflöte in German in 1792, and in 1794, both in Czech and Italian. The symphony itself, however ‘German’ it was to become, derived from the Italianate opera sinfonia.

But let us return specifically to the Prague Symphony. It has been suggested, for instance by Daniel E. Freeman, that the lack of a minuet and trio, and thus the symphony’s three-movement form, was a nod to Prague; it is certainly at odds both with Mozart’s and Vienna’s practice, and the symphonies of Mozart’s friend, Josef Mysliveček, are all in three movements. Charles Rosen, in his book, Sonata Forms, described it as ‘Mozart’s most massive achievement in the symphonic genre – a work which unites grandeur and lyricism as no other.’ Prague’s enthusiasm for Mozart’s music has often and not without reason contrasted with Vienna’s often lukewarm reception. The warmth of its reception for Le nozze di Figaro may have emboldened the composer, as it certainly would in the case of Don Giovanni, to write one of his more complex, profound creations. We do not know specifically ‘why’ it was written, but intention for Prague is a harmless and possibly revealing myth. Completed in December 1786, the symphony was taken with him on his visit early the following year to the German-Bohemian city, in which he conducted a performance of Figaro as well as the premiere of this work. The world of opera buffa, albeit Mozart’s own dramatically heightened and darkened opera buffa, or soon-to-come Giovanni-esque dramma giocoso, haunts its pages. Mozart certainly took advantage of the renowned talents of the Prague woodwind players, his writing for that section seductively euphonious even by his own exalted standards. One of the composer’s earliest biographers, Franz Xaver Niemetschek, always proud to point to Bohemia’s affinity with the Salzburger and vice versa, pointed to Mozart having ‘judged with extreme accuracy’ in this work ‘the nature and range of all instruments … the exact time and place to make his effect,’ resulting in ‘the admiration of all experts’.

A lengthy slow introduction to the first movement signals its weight: child to the Sturm und Drang and father to Beethoven’s ‘expansion’ of symphonic form. Mozart’s own symphonic sonata form is arguably deepened further by its incorporation of elements of the ritornello form familiar from the composer’s piano concertos. Counterpoint and harmony, as so often in mature Mozart, stand in a relationship which, often depending on performance style, may suggest either the most perfect balance or the most daring dialectic – or both. It is counterpoint, born both of Mozart’s recent immersion in works by Bach and Handel and of his experience of earlier, ‘Austrian’ composers such as Fux, which holds the key to connection between the profusion of melodic figures, unusual even by Mozart’s standards. They appear first in turn in the exposition, like characters in an opera, then entwine, Figaro-like, in ensemble, always, as in his symphonies and operas alike, under the benign, dynamic goal-orientation of his tonal choices. Combinations present themselves anew, answering to the musico-dramatic requirements of the moment: ever-fresh, ever-surprising, ever-convincing. As H.C. Robbins Landon once observed, truthfully if with exaggeration, Haydn surprises us with the unexpected; Mozart surprises us with the expected.

The slow movement is, typically for Mozart, written in the subdominant, G major. Its compound duple (6/8) meter permits all manner of sinuous chromatic deepening, both melodic and harmonic. Quicksilver shifts, here and in the finale, between major and minor, remind us once again of Mozart’s operatic stage and his ability to smile through tears. The finale may have been written first of all; some scholars believe it was originally intended as a replacement finale for the Paris Symphony, KV 297/300a. Mozart’s world of dramma giocoso returns, woodwind once again cast their magic spell, busy Presto syncopations hurtling towards the joyous final affirmation of D major. Darker worlds, darker forces, have been summoned up during the Andante and cannot be forgotten, but Classical tonality will still permit cheerful, though certainly not blithe or uncaring, resolution.

If the Prague Symphony marked significant expansion of symphonic scope and form, so too of course did Beethoven’s symphonic arrival – and not just in his Third Symphony, the so-called Eroica. It is understandable that his first two symphonies are often compared to Mozart and Haydn, but they have their own character, and could certainly not be mistaken for the work of anyone else. They too have their elements of international ‘synthesis’, although by this stage in musical history, we are, rightly or wrongly, far more likely to think of compositional ‘originality’ – a Romantic concept of ‘genius’ if ever there were one – rather than ‘influence’ upon its creator. Interestingly, Rosen mentions the work with the utmost brevity in Sonata Forms, simply in terms of its influence upon Schubert, and not at all in The Classical Style. Yet, as Sir Donald Tovey remarked, ‘Beethoven’s Second Symphony was evidently larger and more brilliant than any that had been heard up to 1801.’

The first movement also opens with a slow introduction, but it tends more towards Haydn’s example than Mozart’s; as Tovey again noted, ‘it is Haydn’s way to begin his introduction, after a good coup d’archet with a broad melody fit for an independent slow movement.’ Duly imposing chords, such as we have heard from both Schubert and Mozart, are responded to in melting – ‘feminine’, to employ the idiom of nineteenth-century musical criticism – fashion. If we remain in the mood for ‘influence’, then we might also find Haydn’s in the first theme of the exposition proper. It is certainly no melody ‘in the Italian style’ but a typically ‘Germanic’ motivic building-block, yet one whose various components may be taken apart, expanded, in a word ‘developed’. Both tonal world and motivic material, then, are ripe for exploration; so is the young, although not so very young, Beethoven. The eruption of the coda certainly looks forward to any number of Romantic successors, though Beethoven not so much obscures as renders sublimely irrelevant the dualism of ‘Classical or Romantic’.

The Larghetto, according to Tovey, ‘one of the most luxurious slow movements in the world,’ offers warmth and soulfulness with an Innigkeit that seems, at least in retrospect, as ‘German’ as the composer from Bonn who yet settled in Vienna. Chamber music writ large pays homage to the Classical divertimento, so does Beethoven’s unusually Mozartian profligacy of melodic material. The scherzo, the very idea of such a movement not the least of Beethoven’s innovations, is small, yet utterly typical in its concision and tension, and downright explosive quality. Its trio may relax, yet it offers dialectical struggle too: not least between post-Mozartian Harmoniemusik – of a very different variety from Schubert’s, yet doubtless with that common root – and a dazzling whirlwind vortex of proto-Romantic string-writing. The rondo finale has Beethoven’s gruff humour propelled by that ‘goal orientation’ which has been the hallmark of symphonism, and, in its denial, anti-symphonism ever since. Not for nothing did Stravinsky, perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest foe of the Classical-Romantic German ‘synthesis’, construct his æsthetic upon denial of Beethoven and Wagner; not for nothing, however, did he re-admit Beethoven to his pantheon when composing his Symphony in C.

‘Dialectical Games’: The Piano Music of Pierre Boulez


(This essay was first published as a programme note for the Salzburg Festival, 2015. The works in question were performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich.) 


Sonata for piano, no.1
Sonata for piano, no.2
Sonata for piano, no.3
·         Constellation-Miroir
·         Trope
une page d’éphéméride
Structures for two pianos: Livre II

Notations is the earliest of Boulez’s piano works to have been published and thus acknowledged. Written during his time in Messiaen’s composition class, the Notations were given to Boulez’s fellow pupil and friend, Serge Nigg, and long thought lost. Their polemical intent is certainly a harbinger of things to come. Already impatient with ‘orthodox’ dodecaphony, as personified in Paris by René Leibowitz, a pupil of Webern, Boulez decided to satirise what he – interestingly, not entirely unlike Stravinsky – saw as a ‘mania for twelves’. And so, he composed twelve piano pieces, each based upon a twelve note-row, each twelve bars long.

Satire aside, much engages the ear. One hears ‘influences’, to be sure, but also the beginnings of paths that were not to be taken up, and also, most intriguingly, hints of things to come – which may fruitfully be pursed in a concert such as this, in which we hear the published œuvre. Readily apparent is the delight in the music of Debussy (no.8 might almost be a mini-Prélude composed by a Debussy returned from the dead in the 1940s), that of Bartók (no.7 in particular), and, in the nature of the piano writing, the Schoenberg of the op.11 Three Pieces. There is a crucial tension already to be heard between freedom and determinism, here most strongly in contrasts between individual pieces, for instance between the post-Debussyan ‘vagueness’ of no.9 (‘Lointain – calme’) and the  mechanisation of no.10 (‘Mécanique et très sec’). The stillness of the ninth offers, at least in retrospect, a foretaste in miniature, of the slow movement of the Second Sonata, its air as rare and bracing as that of a mountain lake.

The First Sonata came first though, a two-movement work written in 1946, roughly contemporary with the Sonatine for flute and piano. As with the Notations, one hears small, musical cells, readily grasped by the ear even on a first hearing, but there is greater scope for development. ‘Dialectical games’ – a telling description Pierre-Laurent Aimard has employed – between different types of material thrill and beguile, often simultaneously. ‘Freedom’ is always relative, indeed controlled, in Boulez’s music, even in subsequent, ‘aleatory’ form, such as we shall hear in the Third Sonata. Nevertheless, freer material comes into musical, productive conflict with a toccata-like strand in the composer’s piano writing we shall hear further unleashed in Incises. The second movement offers sinuous serial process, perhaps already pointing, if ambivalently, to Boulez’s later attraction towards the music of Berg – whose desire for ‘reconciliation’, especially in late works such as the Violin Concerto and Lulu, the young composer, ‘like a lion who has been flayed alive’ (Messiaen) still suspected of reactionary backsliding. Anger towards such tendencies is still, however, more apparent, than reconciliation. The final six bars alone offer a perpetuo moto across almost the entirety of the keyboard, stretching dynamically from pp to ff to fff with further violent accents, to a long pause, followed by a relatively rare five-note final chord, marked ‘arpèger très brutal et très sec’. This is not music for the fainthearted.

Nor, by any standards, is the Second Sonata, still Boulez’s most celebrated work for the instrument. Completed in 1948, it is a still angrier, still more ambitious, still more ‘achieved’ work – and a ‘work’ it is in the most emphatic sense. Confronting not only his more immediate forebears, but the example of Beethoven himself in his Hammerklavier Sonata, op.106, Boulez’s task is to destroy the very idea of the Classical sonata. Not the least of his reproaches for the twelve-note Schoenberg was the Austrian composer’s recourse to old forms, furthered by his increasing closeness to Brahms, never a figure of whom Boulez has thought especially fondly, despite occasional performances of his music. Yet perspective changes over time; new generations of performers can hear things that others did not think were there – and perhaps were not, at the time. It is ironic, then, that, according to one distinguished contemporary exponent of the sonata, the pianist and conductor, Michael Wendeberg, ‘the second sonata is to the first, you could say, as Brahms is to Mozart. The piano score is richer, using the entire pitch range; furthermore, the rhythmical structures are decidedly more complex, and the polyphony is more clearly brought out.’

Heard immediately after the First Sonata, the first movement can impart a sense of continuing, deepening exploration. Aspiration to – and at the same time, dialectial denial of – post-Messiaenesque melody is integrated into a structure of disintegrating Beethovenian sonata form. Freedom and mechanism: that dialectic apparent between Notations is here present within, and indeed propels, the progress of a single movement. The close came both as confirmation and as surprise. In the slow movement, Boulez’s parenthetical method, still more crucial to the Third Sonata, comes to the fore, an almost Wagnerian conception of ‘endless melody’, itself of course a conception reliant upon Romantic reception of Beethoven, increasingly disrupted, even annulled, by lengthening interjections and eruptions.  The third movement might justly be considered the work’s scherzo; ‘presque vif’, (almost lively) cautions against too straightforward a Beethovenian understanding. Disintegration, even Terror, is the post-Robespierrian order of the day in the finale. The Hammerklavier’s all-encompassing fugue may or may not be deliberately parodied, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the sparks sent flying by furious piling up of post-Webern shards are not part of the crossfire as Boulez’s own, slower, perhaps underlying fugue meets its very different fate. The post-war avant-garde’s insistence upon a ‘Year Zero’ following the horrors of the Second World War may have been unhistorical, impossible, but it helps account for the rage we so often discover in its earlier works. An almost Bergian synthesis seems briefly within reach, yet is never achieved. If the final, slow section cannot reconcile, in a fine performance, it will speak, even sing: the song of aftershock.

Boulez’s Third Sonata remains, like a good number of his works, a work-in-progress. Work began in 1955. The premiere was given by the composer at Darmstadt in 1957. Boulez outlines the intended circular structure of the work – four ‘Formants’, of which ‘Trope’ is the only one to have been published, encircling a central ‘Constellation’, also to be mirrored (‘Constellation-miroir)’ – in an article whose title knowingly echoes Fontenelle’s celebrated question, ‘Sonate, que me veux-tu?’ (Sonata, what do you want of me?) The two movements heard this evening were published in 1962 and 1963; there are numerous sketches for what may follow at the Paul Sacher Foundation. As Peter O’Hagan has pointed out, in his 1998 consideration of the materials, ‘A central concern is the integration of serial organisation on a local level with large-scale structure.’ ‘Trope’, when performed as here, with ‘Constellation-miroir’, will follow it; it would precede ‘Constellation’.

Reconstruction, then, following the scorched earth of the Second Sonata? Yes, although certainly not reversion. The pianist must make choices concerning the very ordering of the music, Boulez here attracted by the idea of a maze or labyrinth, a matter of finding one’s way in the heat of the moment – although the chosen path through the labyrinth and, by extension, even the moment itself, must, by virtue of the work’s complexity, actually be prepared beforehand. A linear path, a vertical one, something else? (Ideally, then, one would hear at least two different performances back-to-back. Ideally, though, we might have the ‘complete work’ too!) The ‘openness’ of Boulez’s Mallarmé- and Joyce-inspired ‘Livre’ faces dialectical assault from a post-pontillistic style still acknowledging the early 1950s’ high-watermark of total serialism. Even, perhaps particularly, as a work-in-progress, Boulez certainly achieves his desire to ‘jettison the concept of a work as a simple journey starting with a departure and ending with an arrival’. It also reflects upon itself as a musical work, as Joyce’s two great novels reflect upon themselves as novels – and it does that not simply as part of the composer’s ‘intention’. In a 1988 interview with Peter McCallum, Boulez avowed: ‘Yes … I will finish it, certainly one of these days, because I conceived it as a total, global architecture, and now there are only two doors instead of five. I feel obliged to make a complete five movements.’

If most of Boulez’s solo piano works come from the earlier part of his career, then Incises and une page d’éphéméride qualify as ‘late’ works. At a safer distance, the composer seems more willing – and able – to offer a rapprochement to the sonorities and perhaps even to the harmonies of twentieth-century composers: not only Debussy and Ravel (Gaspard, surely, in Incises) but even Schoenberg too. Once more, the toccata is the thing, as is a taste for decoration, for ornamentation, even for proliferation, we might even trace back to earlier French composers such as Couperin and Rameau – whose music Boulez has occasionally conducted. The material of Incises is derived from Répons, whose antiphonal structure it also shares, slow sections punctuating the toccata material. une page d’éphéméride seems perhaps to open a new path, which may or may not be taken up, its bell-like tones at the same time harking back to one of the Notations; at any rate, it was intended as the first piece in a new cycle for piano.

Finally, Structures. Boulez had partly intended to teach Messiaen a total ‘serialist’ lesson in the first chapter of the first book, which the two composers performed together. The second book is already a considerably ‘freer’ work. Indeed, it is, perhaps above all, high drama, which reconstitutes, reworks material from the earlier work. Artaud-like frenzy, familiar from the Second Sonata in particular, remains, extends; decision-making from the Third is also with us. Watch – and listen – for decisions signalled by one player to another and then responded to (or not). These, again, are ‘dialectical games’. The music incorporates rather than moves beyond earlier serialism; at the same time, its shows something new. Perhaps most intriguingly of all, we know that the free and determined are doing battle, but are unsure which is which. Identity, perhaps, is not the point. To quote Andrew Infanti, ‘fixity becomes a governing principle frequently attacked by the musical matter it devises to control.’ An ever-expanding universe of serial possibilities – and clashes – is musically and visually dramatised.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Proms Saturday Matinée 4: London Sinfonietta/Fischer - Boulez, Grime, and Mason, 29 August 2015

Cadogan Hall

Boulez – Mémoriale (‘…explosante-fixe…’ Originel)
Helen Grime – A Cold Spring
Boulez – Domaines
Christian Mason – Open to Infinity: A Grain of Sand (United Kingdom premiere)
Boulez – Eclats/Multiples

Michael Cox (flute)
Mark van de Wiel (clarinet)
London Sinfonietta
Thierry Fischer (conductor)

And so, the Proms celebration of Pierre Boulez’s music drew to a close. I have previously lamented the lack of Répons, but otherwise, we have much for which to be grateful. Here, three of Boulez’s works were interspersed with works by two admiring young British composers, Helen Grime and Christian Mason.

First up was Mémoriale, hot on the heels of the Albert Hall performance of …explosante-fixe.... It was interesting to hear the two works in close succession, not least since that experience offered a reminder that the ear can sometimes play tricks: is one hearing electronic sounds or not? Clearly not on this occasion, but I might have guessed so, had I not known otherwise. The flute’s trills, the general contours: all were quite familiar by now; yet of course, they sounded different in a different performance (Michael Cox first among London Sinfonietta equals) and in a very different acoustic, that of Cadogan Hall. The ensemble here seemed to offer something of an aural shadow, reminiscent perhaps of Dialogue de l’ombre double. Boulez’s short piece sounded somewhere in between, or rather somewhere beyond, Debussy and Stravinsky, mediated by hints of the Bergian labyrinth. The horns’ final dying away into nothingness was not the least magical moment.

Helen Grime, in conversation with Tom Service, said how struck she had been, even at music college, by Boulez’s ear for harmony and colour. Her ear is formidable too, in no sense replicating, but happy to admit inspiration. The three movements of A Cold Spring (after a poem by Elizabeth Bishop) offer highly virtuosic writing, each having a featured solo instrument or pair of soloists. The first opens teeming with melody, as if paying updated homage to The Rite of Spring, albeit very much in its own voice. I thought also of Schoenberg – a work such as the First Chamber Symphony – in its melodic profusion, although I am unsure whether such associations are merely my affair. The stiller, second movement (‘Calmo’) brought to me a colouristic hint or two of Birtwistle, perhaps a hint too of a melancholy not entirely dissimilar to his. Dark bass lines (cello and double bass) seem to colour the invention above. Calmness is transformed into something else, prior to a final enchantment, blessed, so it seemed, by all instruments, but perhaps especially the harp. The transition to the third movement is led by the double bass, that movement itself sounding very much as a development of what has gone before, not least in its darkness – melody and harmony, as well as its instrumentation.

In Domaines, the number six is prevalent: the clarinettist, here the excellent Mark van de Wiel, plays from six different stands, each with an original page and a ‘mirror’ thereof, each of those twelve pages having six musical fragments, thus totalling seventy-two in all, ranging in length from forty seconds or so to – temporally speaking, at least – little more than the twinkling of an eye. The collision, navigated by the performer, between ritual theatre and a single instrument’s kaleidoscopic array of colours is not the least of the piece’s claims to drama. And that particular instrument, the clarinet, perhaps inevitably has one listen – and, indeed, watch – mindful of kinship with Birtwistle. Indeed, I could not help but think there was something, whether coincidental or otherwise, of Punch and Judy, albeit suaver, to this performance. One would certainly never have guessed the textual complexity of this assemblage of ‘single’ lines in a performance of such  mesmerising musical theatre. Was Boulez’s aspiration – sorry, not in the Liz Kendall sense – to unendliche Melodie even at this stage perhaps born of Wagner (Parsifal at Bayreuth)? And/or Pelléas? Every so often, there seemed also to be an instrumental, even melodic, reminder of Webern. At any rate, score and performance seemed endlessly generative. The idea of ‘mirrors’ offered other, French resonances, whether with respect to Ravel or even old, Baroque ‘doubles’. One could hear, or fancy one heard, such connections, but this was above all Boulez’s own path, the performer’s, and the listener’s.

Open to Infinity: A Grain of Sand (the title, I assume, inspired by Blake) is the second of Christian Mason’s works dedicated to Boulez, and intended as a tribute. As Mason put it, all three movements were as yet at the ‘grain of sand’ stage, but were open to expansion: a highly Boulezian conception. (Boulez acted as mentor to him at Lucerne.) Another nod to Boulez lies in the use by all fourteen players of crotales, intended as a reference to Le Visage nuptial. In each movement, one can hear, even in a first encounter, the varied working out of the same pitch material (almost Berg-like in its audible presence).  The éclat of the first, ‘In a Grain of Sand’, though it could not be mistaken for Boulez, could certainly be heard as homage. The second, ‘In a Wild Flower’, has almost jazzy inflections: perhaps a touch, dare I suggest it, of Boulez’s would-be antipode, Henze? Whatever the truth of that, there is certainly revealed a keen ear for colour and its relationship to rhythm (which, I admit, could equally be inspired by the orchestral Notations: pure speculation on my part). Dramatically insistent figures characterise the third, ‘In the Palm of Your Hand’, with the London Sinfonietta offering, in a true array of colours, all the performative commitment one would expect.

Eclats/Multiples depends upon split-second decisions from the conductor, not the first and certainly not the last of Boulez’s insistence on the importance of performance. It certainly received a splendid performance from the Sinfonietta and Thierry Fischer. The opening piano éclat announced its Messiaenic inheritance; hearing John Constable, one could almost imagine the ghost of Yvonne Loriod. Such resonances, even echoes, again began to make their own way, however: to construct, perhaps even to destroy, and to suggest further creative-destructive connections (whether thinking of the Second Piano Sonata or the endlessly misquoted interview with Der Spiegel). The illusion and the construction of line familiar from Domaines took on new life in ensemble. The ‘pointillism’ of 1950s serialism has generally been exaggerated, give or take an odd Stockhausen piece; this seemed an object lesson in compositional and performative constructivism from the following decade. (Just, one might say, as in Boulez’s conducting of Webern.) It was a joy to meet in new garb old aural friends from the world of Le Marteau sans maître: to know, with hindsight, where they might lead – or not. Why is this wonderful work not more often performed?