The Barbican Boulez at 90 tribute continues Thursday 23rd with a keynote concert, in which
Peter Eötvös conducts the London Symphony Orchestra (Boulez's old band) in Boulez Livre pour cordes, Stravinsky Rite of Spring and Boulez Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, a particular favourite of mine. Above, Boulez, Maderna and Stockhausen in 1955, around the time Gruppen was written. Imagine, Gruppen now 60 years old ! Worth a birthday party. .
Maderna (1927-73) and Boulez were particularly close, so Rituel is an extraordinarily personal work which brings together several different threads in Boulez and Maderna's musical life. Maderna was an associate of Hermann Scherchen, the champion of New Music, and began conducting Mahler at a very early stage. His Mahler 9 still remains one of the greats. Boulez's Rituel commemorates Maderna on many different planes.
On an obvious level, Rituel is a ritual procession, loosely referencing Mahler and even, possibly, the Catholic world in which they both grew up, even if they didn't practice the religion. The orchestra is divided into eight unequal parts, moving at different paces and in different ways, just as mourners follow a cortege, seemingly disparate but with common purpose. Solemn percussion evoking the image of a funeral, but also serving to measure time and its inevitable passing. This percussion functions like a heartbeat, often harshly hollow. Sudden interruptions, flurries, changes and pauses that feel organic, like a brave heart that's failing but rallying despite the odds. Brass and string chords reach out into space, as if exploring distance and searching the unknown. No wonder I'm thinking Gruppen, though they're so very different. Cymbal crashes echo, the sounds lingering after the act of playing has ceased.
Boulez's Rituel has been heard as a commentary on Maderna's own music and his place in music history, yet it's also psychologically intense, as if through the formality of the structure, Boulez is coping with extreme emotion. Anyone who still swallows the myth that Boulez is cold needs to listen to Rituel. Emotion does not need to be effusively heart-on-sleeve. Indeed, I think it's more sincere when tempered by intelligence. Significantly, solo clarinet functions prominently, weaving past the regulatory percussion, like a lone mourner wailing, bereft. I've often imagined Rituel as if it were a chorus in a Greek tragedy, for it sounds primeval, throwing its deeply-felt spirit into high relief.
HERE is a link to extremely well written Programme notes by Philip Huscher for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.