City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: First Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 17 & Sunday 18 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

There are numerous commemorations this month of the centenary of Debussy’s death, but the Debussy Festival taking place in Birmingham over the weekends of 17/18 and 24/25 March is likely the most extensive mounted in the UK.

Together with chamber and song recitals, films and talks, there is a series of concerts by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as its related orchestras and ensembles, which between them offer an overview not only of Debussy’s major works but also those who influenced him and those who have been influenced by him in their turn.

Saturday evening focussed on Sensual Debussy, opening with the piece in which the composer effectively became himself. Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1894) began proceedings, its pervasive sensation of lazy eroticism palpably conveyed. This segued into Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898/1908) – a rare instance of Debussy’s acappella writing, its lithe alternation of solo and ensemble voices enticingly conveyed by the Birmingham University Singers. Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (above) then directed a perceptive account of La Damoiselle élue (1888), its Rossetti text inspiring a cantata whose luminous modality and ecstatic lyricism fairly define musical pre-Raphaelitism. Soprano Ilse Eerens was eloquent in the ‘title-role’ and mezzo Aga Mikolaj (below) searching in her narrative, with the CBSO Youth Chorus’s singing ethereal but never cloying.

Mikolaj returned for three of Szymanowski’s Love Songs of Hafiz (1914) and captured their capricious flights of fancy as made one wish the whole cycle of eight could have been given. This might have been preferable to the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) that rounded-off the concert – finely played and convincingly directed, save for a rather jarring accelerando toward the climax of the Prelude, but whose emotional intensity was rationalized by Debussy into something more oblique and understated. As had just been heard in the latter’s Nocturnes (1899), first of his orchestral triptychs and a marvel of shifting textures in Nuages, then ominous evocation in Fêtes. The diaphanous yearning of Sirènes was hardly less evident; less than perfect integration with its female voices the only real flaw.

Sunday afternoon brought Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in a programme devoted to Debussy’s Legacy. Boulez’s Dérive 1 (1984) set the scene with its wave-like eddying of pithy motifs, then the music of Tristan Murail (above) took centre-stage with pieces from across three decades of his career. Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant (1978) is a reminder of how radical yet understated (à la Debussy) his music must have sounded in a French scene dominated by Boulezian serialism, harmonic overtones a constant around which the ensemble inhales then exhales its glistening timbres. How Murail got there was duly underlined by Couleur de mer (1969): almost his first acknowledged work, its five sections pit serial constructions against a more intuitive take on harmony and texture in music whose eruptive central span is almost as startling as its cadential sense of closure. Between these, Feuilles à travers les cloches (1998) is an evocative and eventful miniature anticipating the stark post-impressionism of Murail’s more recent music. Fastidious playing from BCMG, and perceptive direction by Julien Leroy.

The CBSO returned that Sunday evening for Modern Debussy, another hour-long sequence opening with a further account of Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune in the arrangement that Schoenberg’s pupil Benno Sachs made in 1921. With flute, oboe and antique cymbals left in place, and harmonium ingeniously filling-out the ensemble, this proved an appealing novelty and ideal complement to the Première Rapsodie (1910) in which Debussy transformed a test-piece into a minor masterpiece – CBSO principal clarinettist Oliver Janes as responsive to its melodic elegance as to its deft virtuosity.

Responsive in support, Graźinytė-Tyla then directed a bracing account of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1921) where some refined playing toned down the 1947 revision’s asperities. A pity Takemitsu’s exquisite Green had to be dropped (were the parts not received in time?), but Michael Seal presently took charge for a characterful reading of Jeux (1913) – confirming Debussy’s developing variation as no less crucial than Stravinsky’s mosaic-like construction to the evolution of music this past century.

Food for thought, indeed, over the course of this first weekend – not least for reminding one of just how central to modern Western music Debussy’s presence has been. Hopefully, too, the overall quality of interpretation will be maintained throughout next weekend’s concerts.

For more information on the CBSO Debussy Festival, you can visit the event’s website


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


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.


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

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)


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):

on the iPlayer until 23 June


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

For more concerts click here