BBC Proms – BBC Singers & Ensemble Intercontemporain: Boulez, Elliott Carter & Bartók

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Baldur Brönnimann conducts the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the BBC Proms on Friday 2 September, in a Prom also featuring violinist Jeanne-Marie Conquer, IRCAM computer music artists Andrew Gerzo, Carlo Laurenzi and Jérémie Henrot, and the BBC Singers. (c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 65; Royal Albert Hall, Friday 2 September 2016

Bartók Three Village Scenes (1926); Boulez Anthèmes 2 (1997); Carter Penthode (1985); Boulez Cummings ist der Dichter (1970)

Listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Tonight’s late Prom suggested a certain nostalgic element in that the composers performed were at the forefront of these concerts from the late-1960s to the early 1990s, since when the evolution of contemporary music has increasingly become divorced from notions of progress.

Not least in the case of the Three Village Scenes that Bartók wrote in response to a hearing of Stravinsky’s Les noces, and that essentially freed his music from any vestige of late-romantic rhetoric. Not heard at the Proms for over three decades, these concise pieces alive with vitality and (in the second of them) pathos responded well to the poise and precision accorded by the Ensemble Intercontemporain (who gave this piece with Pierre Boulez in 1974 and ’79) – with the BBC Singers conveying the abrasiveness and humour of the vocal writing in like measure.

Although among his late works, Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 looks back via a brief solo predecessor to the Stravinsky memorial tribute a quarter-century earlier. Less encompassing in its musical scope than his other electro acoustic pieces, it brings to a head Boulez’s preoccupation with a cumulative s verse-and-refrain format unfolding as continuous variations in sound and space. Ably as the three IRCAM engineers facilitated this latter, it was the playing of Jeanne-Marie Conquer (below) – a world-class soloist if she chose to be – which took centre stage in every respect.

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A rather different side of Boulez’s composing was evident with Cummings ist der Dichter – a work which, for all that its title came about by accident, represents an oasis of conviction from an era beset by creative uncertainty. How much of this is due to harmonic enrichment brought about by the 1986 revision is arguable, though the manner in which the text emerges out of its syllabic and parenthetical austerity to assume unexpected textural richness and intricacy was inherent from the outset, and the present account left little doubt as to this music’s eloquence.

Between these works came Elliott Carter’s Penthode, not heard at these concerts since being premiered here 31 years ago and that could not then have been heard as merely an instalment in a creative odyssey still having over two decades to run. The five paths of its title taken by five ‘broken’ ensembles, the piece unfolds as a single-movement chamber symphony whose slow underlying pulse is increasingly overridden by music of a quizzical and often humorous demeanour; not least when directed with evident verve and assurance by Baldur Brönnimann.

An increasingly familiar figure in the UK, Brönnimann is in a line of conductors – stretching back to Boulez and beyond – as ensures this music retains its relevance for later generations, such that tonight’s Prom could never be mistaken for a nostalgic look back to a lost future.

Richard Whitehouse

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Kulwinder Singh-Rai on the Berliner Philharmoniker & Sir Simon Rattle

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
kulwinder-singh-raiThis is the latest in the series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Kulwinder Singh-Rai (above) gives his thoughts on Prom 64.

Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle

Boulez Éclat (1965); Mahler Symphony no.7 (1904-05)

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Kulwinder, what was your musical upbringing?

I listen to a lot of Bhangra music, Punjabi music and hip hop. Being born in the city of Birmingham I would experience a lot of dancehall and bashment music, but always something with a real beat to it. All the genres I’ve mentioned have got a real strong beat to their music. I listen to a lot of music in the car, so would listen to a lot of music with a beat there, and from my phone.

I grew up with what was on the radio, in houses and at parties I went to. Even when I was a student, you would hang around people who liked similar music to you. So I didn’t have much contact with classical music!

Did you have much contact with Indian classical music?

Not then, but recently one of my friends is an Indian classical musician, and I find that music very relaxing and soothing. That is something that I have appreciated, listening to music with silence in it, which is quite a new experience!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

That’s difficult, as it varies from day to day! It’s what with me at the time, so it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re groundbreaking. What you have is a snapshot of me now, really – in a month’s time it would be totally different stuff! Currently I would say Diljit Dosanjh, who’s pretty big in Punjabi popular music. From pop music I like Drake, because again it has a really good beat and varies a lot.

I’m trying to think of what I play in the car, although when I’m in the workplace I do play some calmer stuff. (looks at phone) I don’t play any pop music at work, especially when I’m doing reports and need something to calm me down. I just go by what I like rather than the name, and these are quite old recordings. (shows Arcana Glenn Gould plays Mozart). It’s because I need something to keep me steady at work, and I would listen to it on headphones.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

All the famous adverts really. I’ve been to two classical concerts before, and only recently. I think this is the third, but previously I went to see a concert at the Royal Festival Hall – Messiah I think it was, with a choir, and we were really high up. It was uplifting and you were whistling tunes for the next few days at work!

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

It was good to see the crowd there, because the only other crowds I really experience are at football matches. It was a similar kind of experience in that sense, though a lot more interesting than the last match I went to! (Kulwinder is a West Bromwich Albion season ticket holder, and the last game he was an interminable goalless draw with Middlesbrough! – ed)

You have some chants and jeering there obviously, but it’s similar – the crowd gathered around, affiliation to the team – and so it was very enjoyable. I was surprised by how mixed the audience was, not all middle class – and the dress sense. The guy next to me could easily have been from a park bench! So it was a lot more accessible than I thought it would be, which was really good.

What did you think of the Boulez?

I must admit I didn’t really get into that. It finished so quickly that I can’t remember much of it. It was early in the concert and I hadn’t really acclimatised to it, and I was expecting more of a build up like you normally get. There wasn’t really time to do that, so I can’t remember a great deal. It could be that the other piece was so intense that it washed away the memory.

And the Mahler?

I thought it was very emotional, which was a good thing. I watch different things like the conductor to keep my attention, but I would say it was very convincing and I was deeply engrossed in it. If I heard it again I would have more thoughts and pictures about the story I think, but it drew you into the music and you could have drawn more into the narrative if there was a more obvious one.

I would say I felt relaxed but alert, if you know what I mean. Calm but the music was quite surprising sometimes – some of what happened in the middle I would expect to happen at the end. Normally I would expect a crash at the end and you would expect them to stop, but here it carried on.

Would you change anything about the experience?

No I don’t think so. It’s very popular, so obviously people are aware of it with the queues to get in. Maybe if they moved it around a bit, more outside of London – bringing it to other cities – it would work! Because it’s my first one I can’t think too much of that but I thought the venue was great, and the audience were great as well – very quiet and paid attention.

Would you go again?

I would definitely go again. Not having been bought up with classical music it’s all new to me, so I’m looking as a child at the different sounds and instruments. Maybe if it was some vocal music I would be more likely to go, but either / or is doable!

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

On record: Boulez – Complete Music for Solo Piano (Marc Ponthus) (Bridge)

boulez-ponthuswritten by Richard Whitehouse

Boulez: Complete Music for Solo Piano [Piano Sonatas – No. 1; No. 2; No. 3 (movements 3a and 2). 12 Notations; Incises (revised version), Un page d’éphéméride]
Marc Ponthus (piano)

Summary

Marc Ponthus, an American pianist in the lineage of Charles Rosen and Paul Jacobs, tackles the (nominally) complete piano music of Pierre Boulez – a select though vital body of work particularly in terms of understanding his evolution over the first decade of creative maturity.

What’s the music like?

Boulez’s meteoric rise to the forefront of the European avant-garde is much in evidence here. Withdrawn for over four decades, the set of 12 Notations (1945) is both an investigation and critique of the serial thinking absorbed from Schoenberg and Webern – brief though eventful miniatures at once intriguing and sardonic.

Ponthus renders them with due precision, then is no less perceptive in the First Piano Sonata (1946) whose two compact movements unfold in respectively speculative and incisive terms. The Second Piano Sonata (1948) is the climax of this phase, its outwardly orthodox four-movement design acknowledging while dismantling Classical antecedents via an often assaultive virtuosity of which Ponthus is fully in command. Those who might know Maurizio Pollini’s magisterial 1976 account will find this version a worthy successor.

Boulez’s subsequent piano music parallels the ambivalence of his work as a whole. Envisaged as an ambitious five-movement format, only the second and third movements (the latter in its retrograde version) of his Third Piano Sonata (1957) have been published – Ponthus relishing glacial expressive contrasts in Constellation-Miroir then underlining the ingenious variation process of Trope.

Incises (1994) began as a competition test-piece, expanded with this 2001 version into a fantasy of headlong dynamism and suspenseful inaction. It might have served as springboard for a concertante piece that remained unrealized, while Un page d’éphéméride (2005) was intended as starting-point for a piano cycle that never was; what remains is a four-minute étude whose enticing sonority and glistening filigree denote the sure hand of a master.

Does it all work?

Yes, but just how and why depends on listeners’ insight into and understanding of a tradition such as Boulez approached via an engaged antagonism that did not atrophy so much as open-out experientially over time. Those who value their musical preconceptions should steer clear.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, with the proviso that the original version of Incises might have been included, as also the opening Antiphonie movement (given at Aldeburgh only last year) of the Third Sonata. The sound has unsparing clarity, with the booklet note and interview a mine of information.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at the Wigmore Hall – Imitations and Studies

Imitations and Studies – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet at the Wigmore Hall

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 25 May 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05w7tdx

on the iPlayer until 23 June

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found here

What’s the music?

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major Op. 78 ‘A Thérèse’ (10 minutes)

Boulez: Piano Sonata No. 1 (11 minutes)

Maurice Ohana: 3 from the 12 Études d’interprétation, Book 1 (Mouvements parallèles; Quintes; Main gauche seule) (15 minutes)

Debussy: 3 from the Etudes Book I (Pour les tierces; Pour les sixtes; Pour les octaves) (10 minutes)

What about the music?

At first glance this program has the appearance of a slightly random but interesting set of composers and works; on closer inspection they are shown to have intriguing connections.

Beethoven’s middle period sonata, subtitled ‘à Thérèse’ in recognition of its dedicatee, Countess Thérèse von Brunswick, is a snip at just ten minutes and is one of the lesser known of the 32 sonatas. It also has a strange key and unusual structure, so to all intents and purposes it feels like an experimental work – yet it is concentrated in its emotion and ultimately rewarding for the listener.

The Boulez sonata, his first of three, was written when the composer – now 90 – was just 21. It was intriguingly modelled on the Beethoven work just heard – both in length and design – so it makes sense to hear the two together. Going further than Beethoven’s unusual key choice, Boulez writes using the ‘twelve-tone’ method – which means each note of the conventional Western notation has to sound before the initial note can be heard again. Twelve-tone pieces can often present challenges for audiences, but this one does still emphasise certain pitches – ‘B’ especially – and uses a wide range of dynamics and expressive nuances that make it much more palatable to the untrained ear.

Maurice Ohana is not a composer often encountered in the concert hall at all. His upbringing as an Andalusian of Jewish descent born in Morocco and eventually settling in France is reflected in the cosmopolitan nature of his music, uniting all these strands. Ohana often makes use of microtonality, using pitches between the semitones we are so used to in Western music. That of course is not possible on a tuned piano as in this concert – but we hear a flavour if his unusual harmonies in this selection of Etudes, modelled on Debussy’s equivalent works for the piano. The final etude is written for the left hand only.

Debussy’s Études are masterpieces that follow Chopin’s lead in making colourful and often emotional pieces from what are ostensibly technical exercises. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet chooses three here.

Performance verdict

An inventive program from Bavouzet, whose relatively recent recordings of Beethoven are complemented by a Boulez piece where the pianist is able to put his friendship with the composer to great authoritative use.

Bavouzet’s technical command is formidable, and comes to the fore in the studies by Ohana and Debussy, where we can hear each composer exploring the limits of the pianist through some particularly athletic writing.

What should I listen out for?

Beethoven

2:04 A short introduction leads to the main theme proper of the first movement (around 2:34). The music is relatively at ease here, but not a note is wasted, especially when Beethoven develops this theme – an intense section where the melody twists around but never beyond recognition. The tune dominates but Beethoven’s continued stress of the unusual F sharp tonality creates an unusual form of tension in this performance.

9:38 Bavouzet moves quickly into the second movement, where the first tune has a clipped melody, then the second sounds like two fingers chasing each other repeatedly around the keyboard.

Boulez

14:13 Like the Beethoven, the music seems very sure of itself right from the off. Although this is what is known as a ‘twelve tone’ piece, certain pitches come to the fore and there is an unmistakeably expressive shape to each statement. As the movement progresses there are some particularly crunchy discords, and often a longer phrase is followed by a flurry of notes in a downward descent. The movement ends convincingly at a lower pitch.

19:46 A wiry sound to the lower edge of the piano as this movement starts, and then the mood gets a bit more frivolous – with the ‘chasing’ around the keyboard as experienced in the Beethoven. This more ‘playful’ movement, which still sounds quite straight faced (in the manner of its creator, perhaps!) leads to an uncompromising and perfunctory finish.

Ohana

26:50 – the first etude, a study in parallel motion, starts at the extremes, with the right hand high and the left hand low. The inflections in the melody are full of Eastern flavour, then some of the chords are clumped together before a firm end. This is a virtuoso piece that has a greater rhythmic profile

31:37 – a cool profile to the beginning of Etude no.5, which is a study in the hands playing in fifths. The irregular rhythms make the music feel less secure, but the Eastern flavour is there once again in some of the softer melodies.

36:54 – a study for the left hand only, beginning immersed right at the bottom of the piano but soon ascending to the heights. Ohana asks a lot of the pianist here, and it is difficult to believe that some of the gymnastics here are for just the one hand, as this study flies along – until a stately slower passage.

Debussy

43:24 (Pour les cinq digits) (For the five fingers) A deceptive piece this, as it starts with a simple scalic motif but then moves about restlessly before filling out considerably.

46:38 (Pour les tierces (For the thirds) As the title indicates, this study uses a lot of smaller chords made up of thirds, Debussy giving a unique rocking motion to the music. If anything by the end the music is also a study in octaves as well as thirds.

50:36 Pour les octaves (For the octaves) Some big stretches for the hands in this piece, often playing an octave apart and at quick motion. Then in a typical move for Debussy we suddenly arrive at an emphatic finish in a key that is at once a logical but also surprising move.

Encore

54:22 An encore of Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse (The joyful island), played with typical pizzazz by Bavouzet!

Further listening

With the emphasis still on studies and modern music, an interesting – if challenging – next step are some Studies by Conlon Nancarrow, arranged for instrumental ensemble. These were originally written for a ‘player piano’ – that is, a piano that plyed itself – because the music was thought to be too difficult for human performance. Some pianists do defy gravity to play it, but the versatility of the music is shown by the ease with which it transfers to instruments. Nancarrow’s fiercely original voice can be heard in technicolour here

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