The weekend before last I visited Berlin, mainly to see Pierre Boulez lead the Berlin Philharmonic and the Ensemble Intercontemporain in concert. Boulez is 85 years old, and, to put it bluntly, I wanted to see him live before it was too late.
First on the program was …explosante-fixe…, a composition Boulez initially sketched in the 1970s as part of a memorial for Igor Stravinsky. As is his wont, Boulez returned to the score again and again in the coming decades, making it less improvised and upgrading the electronic processing as technology improved. Essentially, it's a concerto for three flutes and a chamber orchestra. The work now lasts about 35 minutes, with three played sections interspersed with electronic interludes.
…explosante-fixe… isn't one of my favorite Boulez pieces. To me, Boulez is the inheritor of the French tradition of masterful orchestration and shimmering soundscapes, married to a rigorously modernist compositional approach. When these two seemingly disparate strands unite, as in pieces like Notations for Orchestra or Messagesquisses, the result is a undulating ribbon of eerily lovely sounds which develop with an intuitive 'inevitability' that is very difficult to create in atonal music. …explosante-fixe…, on the other hand, never shows the kind of structural transparency that can keep the attention transfixed for over thirty minutes. The musical figures, generally short staccato bursts of notes from the principal flutist (Emmanuel Pahud), are taken up by the other two flutes and the orchestra, volleyed back and forth, refracted and fragmented, and incorporated into longer figures. However, it all takes places so quickly that it's impossible to discern the compositional processes at work.
The electronic interludes were a highlight. Twice, the stage lights went down and the players stopped. From speakers located throughout the concert hall, an electronically-processed 'variation' on what had just been played echoed through the hall. Individual instruments would be filtered out, processed through various filters, sliced into miniscule sections, or electronically transfigured into ghostly chanting or a sound like the soughing of wind in pine trees. These electronic recombinations and re-imaginations of the performed score were quiet and contemplative, functioning almost as "slow movements", and were staggeringly beautiful.
Boulez then led the entire Philharmonic in a concertante performance of Stravinsky's early opera The Nightingale. Boulez has a special fondness for this odd work, and his commitment showed. Barbara Hannigan, as the Nightingale, was phenomenal. Most of the Nightingale's arias begin and end with long sections of intricate vocalise. Hannigan (who sang barefoot!) balanced the clarity of articulation demanded by Boulez with enormous charm, and won an ovation from the audience, which was otherwise slightly nonplussed by the warhorse-free program.
I'll post a few more pictures and tales from Berlin as time permits during this week…