Saturday, 1 October 2011

Manson Ensemble play Boulez

Boulez: Manson Ensemble, Rozenn Le Trionnaire and Elaine Ruby (clarinets), Susanna Malkki (conductor), QEH, London, 30.09.11 (Gdn)
Domaines (version for solo clarinet)
Domaines (version for clarinet and orchestra)
Rituel in Memoriam Bruno Maderna

Does Pierre Boulez still matter? Can his avant-garde ideas be sustained without taking on the canonic status that would surely doom them? The Southbank Centre clearly thinks so, and they have very sensibly let the music speak for itself. The weekend dedicated to Boulez' music, of which this concert was the opening event, offers a retrospective of the great man's work. And while the pieces performed this evening are certainly old (everything was at least 30 years old) every note of it sounded as fresh and relevant as the day it was written.
But the progress of time does have a tangible role on Boulez' music, not least through his tendency (obsession?) for revising his works and presenting them in ever-new forms. The first half of the concert demonstrated this aspect of his artistic persona through two different versions of the same work – Domaines.
In fact, the differences outweighed the similarities, which if nothing else showed that, for Boulez, revision is just as much a creative act as composition. Domaines was originally written for solo clarinet, but later expanded into a version for clarinet and orchestra. There is some leeway in both versions for performers to chose the order in which sections are played, but even so, there was little sense here that like was being compared with like.
Two different student clarinettists, Rozenn Le Trionnaire and Elaine Ruby, performed the two versions of the works. Given the differences between the two versions, it would be uncharitable to compare their performances. Nevertheless, here goes: Elaine Ruby, who performed the orchestral version has the greater tone control, in fact a more elegant sound all round. But Rozenn Le Trionnaire gave the solo version more drama and more immediacy. Unlike her successor, she didn't quite hit every note with the ideal focus, but the combination of rawness and control that she brought to the work meant that she was able to transfix the audience, and without any need for orchestral backup.
Susanne Malkki has plenty of experience leading performances of Boulez' music. She is the principal conductor of Boulez' own orchestra, Ensemble Intercontemporain (who are playing over the weekend) and has presumably worked closely with the composer over the years. Her conducting technique certainly bears witness to a close association. Like Boulez, she conducts without a baton, giving small but clear gestures to the players without any theatrics. That's just what this music needs, and the young players from the Royal Academy of Music responded well.
This is demanding music for any ensemble, so to present it with student performers is a risky strategy to say the least. But on the whole it paid off. The Manson Ensemble clearly isn't in the same league as the ensembles who will follow them over the weekend, but they are close enough. Synchronisation can occasionally be a problem. Both of the orchestral works have moves from unsynchronised ensemble to rhythmic unisons. Once or twice the results were ragged, but on whole the performances were very impressive.
The second half was devoted to one of Boulez' greatest works, Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna. Like the orchestral version of Domaines, Ritual calls for a large ensemble physically divided into groups. Each of these groups is led by a percussionist, who maintains their speed while the separate groups move out of synchronisation. On paper, it sounds like an absolute nightmare for the players, but again the sheer concentration and professionalism of the young ensemble saw the performance through. Special mention should go to the percussionists for keeping the work together, usually while having to play a range of unusual instruments: tabla, slit drums and the like.
I hope the players enjoyed performing Boulez' music. For all the lip-service paid to it, we don't hear it often enough in London. This concert was very enjoyable, and a great way to start what promises to be a landmark festival. If it wins the music some advocates among younger generations of performers too, that can only be a good thing.

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