12 APRIL 1975, Page 27


Boulez premiere

John Bridcut

Boulez the composer has recently been rather obscured by Boulez the conductor, but from September, when he returns to Paris after his stint with the BBC, he will presumably have more time to compose. So it was quite a privilege to have in London last week the world premiere of his Rituel — In memoriam Maderna, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Festival Hall.

His colleague Bruno Maderna died nearly eighteen months ago, and this piece has a strong flavour of a funeral rite. The orchestra is divided into nine groups, seven of which are led by one or more percussion players, who define the different tempo for each group. The eighth group is all brass, and the ninth an impressive array of gongs and tam-tams. The work simply comprises a dialogue between the seven and the two; Boulez in his preface describes it as "Sorte de versets et repons pour une ceremonie imaginaire." The recurrence of thick brass chords provides a sense of ritual, and their wail is suggestive of grief; gongs add to the ceremonial effect. The waves of sound, which become more involved during the piece's twenty minutes, presumably represent the "ceremome de rextinction. rituel de la disparition et de la survivance."

It is a powerful and dramatic threnody, whose form grows less perceptible as the detail grows more complex. The final impression is one of distinct uncertainty,

neither hope nor despair — "dans le ,doute" as the composer puts it. The unpitched percussion cuts through the texture like some glacial diamond, especially in the Festival Hall, and was sometimes over-obtrusive, but generally Boulez must have been pleased with his orchestra.

It was a clever trick to precede Rituel (thus heightening its effect) with Bernard Rands' A urn. Taken out of context, the composer says that Aum as a whole is "beyond words", and he is quite right. Not even the charming harp of Sidonie Goossens and the well-controlled ensemble could prevent the feeling that, in these days of often overcompressed music, this work actually needs compression, along with an energetic pair of scissors.

Bartok's main choral work, the Cantata Profana, began the evening. The young BBC SO gave the premiere four years late in 1934, and I bet it was sung in English. The piece has rather a tortuous linguistic history: Bartok drew from Rumanian folk-ballads, but wrote the text in Hungarian. There are approved English and German translations, so for the BBC choral forces to sing it in German is as absurd as for the Vienna Kammerchar to sing it in English (as they do on disc). An English rendering might have given the choir some sorely-needed confidence; to have any chance against the orchestra in the first movement.

Boulez's recording of Schoenberg's Gurreliecler (CBS: 78264 £5.49, 2 discs) arrives a little late for the centenary, but they will still be talking about it at the bicentenary. This lush cantata tells of the mediaeval Danish King Waldemar and his love for Tove; after her death, the King curses God and is consequently damned to rise from the grave each sunset and hunt till morning. The vocal soloists can often be inaudible in performance, so vast is the orchestra, but the recording studio allows the juggling of orchestral positions and the highlighting of the voices, much to Schoenberg's benefit. Jess Thomas is a spirited Waldemar with a sure grasp of long melodic line. However thick the texture, Boulez invariably achieves great clarity; the sound is exciting and resonant, never blurred. The only balancing fault is with the chorus, who seem very distant and quite lose out to the orchestra (BBC SO).

This and Schoenberg's sextet Verklaerte Nacht •are the most vivid examples I know of the breakdown of tonality. In both works, the sense of strain is such that you can see and hear the system bulging and bursting at the seams. A warning: you need Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring or Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony at hand to act as a musical alka-seltzer (or perhaps even an emetic) in case of over-indulgence in Gurrelieder. Henry I died from a surfeit of lampreys, or perhaps it was King John from peaches. Now to die from a surfeit of Schoenberg would seem to most to involve indescribable agony, but with a well-chosen menu (with Gurrelieder as a main course) it could be a highly pleasant way to go.