Thursday, 14 January 2016

Boulez, Birtwistle and Max - the famed Boulez at 80 concert

Now available on BBC I player, the famous concert "Boulez at 80" where Boulez, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies all met together on stage at the Barbican, London, when Boulez was presented with a medal from the British Association of Composers. Birtwistle spoke of how he had, as a young man, seen Boulez’s score for Le marteau sans maître. He’d seen nothing like it before, and it became his “rite of passage” musically. Boulez was an “immaculately uncompromising” composer and conductor whose example showed the paucity of populist, surface-level music. “A concert hall is not a museum”, he added, for music like Boulez’s “propels us into the future”. Then Boulez, humbly and simply, went back to work.

Boulez and Birtwistle go way back: Boulez's recordings of Birtwistle, like Theseus Games, are the absolute benchmarks. Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies go back a long way too but for decades they weren't on the best of terms, though, subsequently, the huge revival of interest in Birtwistle has brought Max into the spotlight, too.

This film is also important for the interview at 53 minutes in where Boulez explodes some of the myths said about him (direct link here). He explains the context of the story about blowing up opera houses. This came from his frustration at the way opera houses were managed, where a conductor didn't know who the orchestral players or evern the cast might be. As he says, Mahler said much the same thing, and so does Christoph von Dohnanyi (more HERE). He also explains the famous quote "I sleep faster", which was a bon mot about how he managed to cram so much into his days. He didn't sleep 2 hours a night!  On ideologies "You have to find your discipline in order to break it. If you are constantly constrained by your discipline you become sterile. Ideologies are very interesting, at one point, when they are forging something, but when they are not forging something, when they are empty, then that is detrimental to your capacity of inventing"  It's pertinent that Boulez's own music soon went way beyond serialism, in no small part due to John Cage's ideas on chance. Boulez likes modertn music but that's not "ideology". There are composers obsessed with formula but not him.

Charles Hazlewood talks about discipline in conducting. Maybe because I am a composer", says Boulez, " I think the composer is more important than the performer.. not too much of an ego, simply that. But I try to understand what the composer is tryingb to say, and when you see how carefully he has written a score, then you try to be as careful as he was. So then I'm careful about the balance, the style, the  dynamic, the exactitude (which in the French meaning of the word has different connotations to English). On Le soleil des eaux, he speaks of the way he wrote the original before he became  estabhished as a conductor, but when he conducted it with the BBC in  the early 1960's he could  see, from a conductor's perspective , how it could be improved. As to his legacy  "I don't care, I won't be around!< he grins. "Each generation takes from its past and goes ahead."

In was at this concert, back in November 2005.  Look who else was in the audience ! I'm in frame, too, but a blurred dot. Everyone looks so young. Some are no longer with us. Below my notes then on Le soleil des eaux.

Le soleil des eaux was written in 1948, when Boulez was barely 23. Already, though, it shows his distinctive personality, and still sounds strikingly original some sixty years later. René Char was a surrealist, and a member of the French Resistance. These poems come from a post-war political protest and were published barely a year before Boulez set them. Here attention is on the voice, which leaps up the scale, and turns capriciously, like the goldfinch’s darting movements. Boulez observes nature clearly – Messiaen taught him well. [Elizabeth] Atherton was in her element now, gloriously. The high timbre suited her well and she shaped the languor of the lines. Drama is added with sudden flashes of orchestral interjection, which the vocal part complements. “L’homme fusille”, sings Atherton “cache-toi!” (man is armed, hide!), with emphasis on the urgent “cache-toi!”. The second song, La Sorgue, Chanson pour Yvonne, is a much larger work, its powerful imagery condensed into barely five minutes. 

 The piece starts with a delicate otherworldly weaving of wordless soprano singing, harp and vibraphone. Then the orchestra and large chorus surge in, with the power of a mighty river unleashed. The choral writing is so finely textured that individual voices spread across the spectrum. The idea isn’t that specific words should stand out, but rather the impressionistic effect of multi-layered sound. This really is vocal writing as instrumental, where the total image matters. It’s emphasised by the regular cries of “Rivière!” when the choir pulls as one, before relaunching into the flow. Also reversed is the conventional role of soloist: the soprano’s contribution is to soar over and around the massed voices, singing a line that is literally “beyond” words. Boulez chose this piece, seldom performed live because of its personnel demands, as his own tribute to the BBC Symphony and Singers, who have made it one of their specialities."

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