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Monday, 22 June 2015

Boulez at 90 : Aldeburgh Festival at its niche best

This is an account of Boulez Exploration at Aldeburgh Festival’s Boulez at 90

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

22 June

This is an account of the Boulez Exploration day, on Thursday 18 June at 3.00 p.m. (and 11.30 a.m.), at Aldeburgh Festival’s celebrations of Boulez at 90

On the face of it, Boulez Exploration sounds like a strange activity, but, with a strong communicator and respectful guide in the composer Julian Anderson (and the apt collaboration of Florent Boffard to give and bring out examples from the score (in the morning, it had been Quatuor Diotima : see below)), it was a chance to realize, during Aldeburgh Festival (@aldeburghmusic), just how much there was to explore in the realm of the compositions of Pierre Boulez.

Regarding Piano Sonata No. 3, one might have thought that one had heard a recording, but it became clear that the notion of incompleteness in itself meant that we did not have all the material, and Boffard even had a piece, in manuscript and courtesy of Boulez himself, that might not have been played in public before : at the end of Anderson’s exposition of the work to be heard, and before Boffard gave his performance, one questioner, envisaging that Boulez might not live forever, seemed quite perturbed that we might be left with no definitive version of the sonata...

Meanwhile, we had heard how Boulez had debated, and corresponded with, Stockhausen and Cage about the use of aleatory techniques (which Cage, we learnt, preferred to call ‘chance’), and had, after blasting them both (but without naming them) in an article in 1957 called Alea, had maybe shown them how it should be done in this piece. He had started with criticism, of other things, of Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI, and its apparent scope for random performance of its elements : for Anderson and Boffard were agreed that the scope for playing such works from sight, and with decisions made on the spot, is limited, because one actually ends up needs to prepare one’s approach to the piece in advance (defeating what Stockhausen seemed to have aimed at, with elements that could be played in any order ?).

By contrast, and objecting to anything so arbitrary (if it were possible to play it that way), Boulez had provided choices, and, between them, Boffard and Anderson talked us through the instructions that he had given to the performer, and which were at their simplest in those for the middle movement (Formant 2), called Trope (a word, we heard, denoting a section inserted into a plainsong text) : start with any one of its four sections and play all four, from that point until one got back to where one began. (The titles of those sections (Texte, Parenthèse, Glose, Commentaire) are all evocative of the layers of interpretation of mediaeval religious texts (of all kinds).)

Before, Constellation-Miroir (Formant 3) was an assemblage from sections that were, essentially, individual notes (Points 1 to 3) and groups of notes (Blocs I and II), and, afterwards, Formant 1 (extracts from Antiphonie) had simple-form and elaborated versions of each verset and RÉPONS (the lower- and upper-case descriptions, respectively, denoting them - only one version was to be chosen to be played) : Boffard gave us the simple and elaborated versions, but none of this really served as a guide to listening in the performance (as the effect was too overwhelming to want to keep track of whether one was hearing VERSET II, or already onto verset 3), but an understanding of Boulez’ care as composer, and of his integrity in doing what he believes in.

Pictured a few nights later, Florent Boffard is the last figure on the right

What one saw was how Boulez had given freedom to prepare a version of the sonata for performance (arguing against what he saw as the extreme liberty of his contemporaries in letting their work become too random), and could then listen to Boffard’s pianism and precise articulation against that theoretical and musical background.

A superb event – but what else would one expect of Boulez at 90 at Aldeburgh Festival ?

In the morning, and in a different approach (not least as one ticket-price admitted one to both sessions), Julian Anderson had played us, as DJ, extracts from a constellation of other works by Boulez that surrounded his Livre pour quatuor, and we had heard from members of the quartet how they had gained his trust (by suggesting a pairing to bring its sound into relief). From that point, they had worked with him to ease certain difficulties in a score that is itself, we gathered, virtually unobtainable, such as how to interpret a tempo-marking Vif consistently with sustained playing (Anderson liked the short extract that they played at that original speed, but had to agree that it was punishing on them), or the lack of dynamic-markings or a means of making a reasonably playable transition from one note to another that was quite separate on the strings and finger-board for the next.

An earlier, and more linear, score than that of the sonata, and brought to us with great sincerity and interpretative skill by Quatuor Diotima : one immersed oneself in the sound of their playing, and, rare for a live performance, avoided watching the performers in order better to do so.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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