Grosser Saal, Konzerthaus
Boulez – Pli selon pli
Marisol Montalvo (soprano)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Cornelius Meister (conductor)
The twenty-eighth season of Wien Modern, my first (at least in person), opened, as seems proper, with a contribution to the ninetieth anniversary celebrations for Pierre Boulez. It was with a disc from the Vienna Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado, who founded the festival in 1988, that, as a student, I was first made aware of Wien Modern. That recording offered works by Rihm, Ligeti, Nono, and Boulez, so it seemed especially fitting that my first visit should begin with a work by the composer the festival aptly describes as ‘the Grand Master of new music’. Pli selon pli, as sure a candidate for Boulezian masterpiece as any, also readily permits consideration of this season’s guiding theme. To quote its website, ‘One of the characteristics of contemporary music is the multiplicity of forms and genres and the means and forms of expression. Starting from the premise that all music is characterised by the cultural, historical and social parameters of the time in which it was written, WIEN MODERN will this season set out to explore the artistic intentions that shape the dominant fields of expression and composition today. As the motto Pop.Song.Voice suggests, the voice as instrument will act as mediator between the “masterpieces” of new music and advanced pop music.’
And, to that end, we listened first to an opening speech from Susanne Kirchmayr, which made a welcome change from the typical introductory address by a politician or bureaucrat. (I remember, as a child, enduring an introduction to a youth orchestra concert in which a local councillor regaled us for what seemed like hours on his alleged ‘discovery’ that the word ‘euphonious’, clearly a new word to him, was derived from the word, ‘euphonium’, thereby demonstrating the primacy of brass band music. Especially charming for those of us in other sections of the orchestra, this interminable address ended with the declaration that it did not matter whether what we did were any good, since we should all end up doing ‘proper jobs’ anyway, although music might remain a ‘nice hobby’.) Kirchmayr, who performs as a DJ under the name Electric Indigo, spoke interestingly about what New Music – I remain old-fashioned enough to use capitals from time to time – of all sorts might have in common, not least in its resistance to neo-liberal demands of the market. Stockhausen, Jimi Hendrix, Adorno, and others put in appearances, not for their own sake, but as part of an argument that would surely have had much to say to those who had not really considered such matters, as well as questioning those who had. A new Electric Indigo work will be performed on 26 November, during a concert entitled ‘No.1: A Phenomenology of Pop’.
Marisol Montalvo, the ORF Symphony Orchestra and Cornelius Meister then took the stage for Boulez’s Mallarmé ‘portrait’. A celebrated trick of eighteenth-century French orchestras was le premier coup d’archet; Mozart used the device in his ‘Paris’ Symphony. Boulez’s opening orchestral coup is just as impressive – and so it was in performance, followed by necessary, yet perhaps just as shocking, sultriness from voice and orchestra. Meister imparted a strong expository sense to this first movement, ‘Don’, allowing the material and its deployment in their turn to impart a strong sense of musical creation, not unlike, say depictions by Haydn or Berg. In this movement, stately orchestral progress worked very well, offering plenty of space for glances aside from the main procession. (I often thought in that connection of the later Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna.) The performance from Montalvo, especially once she reached the section, ‘…basalte… …y… …échos… [etc.]’, had something of an intervention to it, if not from another culture, then of a different way of considering that dramatised, if that be the right word, here. She seemed engaged in a dramatic delivery of (self-)discovery against Messieanic harmonies which, for once, moved slowly yet surely. Less hieratic, wilder, even frenzied at times: hers was a performance seemingly in conflict, even fruitifully so, with the more careful – perhaps on occasion in subsequent movements, too careful – path mapped out by the orchestra. Instrumental development again brought Messiaen, not always the most ‘developmental’ of composers, to mind, leavened by the Second Viennese School; or perhaps that should have been the other way around. Musical fertility abounded – and resounded.
‘Improvisation I’ offered what one might think of as a more conventionally ‘vocal’ performance, bearing in mind the mediating role of the voice proposed by the festival as a whole. It was recognisably the same ‘voice’, the same portrayal, whether in work or vocal performance, yet seemed also to hark back to earlier vocal and choral works, such as Le Visage nuptial and Le Soleil des eaux. And then, a different, Berg-like voice spoke from the orchestra, sounding or, perhaps better, suggesting catastrophe. Words and language clearly related to music and sound, yet, as in, say, Tristan und Isolde, the relationship, whatever the historical priority, appeared to manifest itself in both directions.
The opening éclat – so often an apt word for Boulez’s music – of ‘Improvisation II’ made its point; so did Montalvo’s vocal melismata, again offering points of departure for consideration of the voice and its mediating, or perhaps leading, role. The apparent naïveté of Montalvo’s performance at this point intrigued, especially when set against a more motoric instrumental performance. The idea of magic has perhaps been trivialized beyond repair in a disenchanted world; yet perhaps, ‘magical’ was not a silly description in this case. The allure of the impenetrable, in more than one sense, was rendered in ecstatic tones, both vocal and instrumental. Montalvo’s bright, bell-like delivery, stronger at the top of her range, was very different from Barbara Hannigan’s in her unforgettable 2011 performance with Boulez. If less overtly sensual a performance all around, this Wien Modern account had its own strengths, its own possibilities.
I loved the way, in ‘Improvisation III’, in which Montalvo’s voice melded with that of the flute. A new instrument, or a duet? Why need it be either/or? At times, and this was, I think, one of the greatest strengths of Montalvo’s performance, it was as if she were singing one of Messiaen’s (actual or camouflaged) alleluias. Tuned percussion responded in kind, yet interestingly, sounded, whether by design or by wordless default, more secular in concern: not the least intriguing of the dialectics set up here in performance. The near-identity between voice, flute, and sometimes other instruments continued to ravish and to perplex when we returned to the opening ‘A la nue accablante…’.
Finally, ‘Tombeau’. Boulez’s opening, seemingly doom-laden Klangfarbenmelodie sounded – a touch of Austrian orchestral colour, or something more? – as if spun from the same cloth as Webern’s op.6. There was a similar sense, moreover, of muffled procession as heard in the funeral march from Webern’s work. Grief was perhaps more abstract, although that is not to say less powerful. Mahler seemed present – and yet, composition of course preceded Boulez’s immersion in that composer’s work. Perhaps it Pli selon pli would actually inform his conducting of Mahler; ‘influence’, at least interesting influence, never runs in a single direction. At any rate, it did not seem a great step either to or from the world of Wozzeck. Vocal qualities of instruments were again readily apparent. A French horn might have been a soprano. And when the horn cried against the long-delayed soprano entry, echoes, musical and historical alike, resounded from the Nachtmusik of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The final ‘mort’ and orchestral coup might have been too theatrical for some – I heard a similar criticism made at the recent Barbican performance from Yeree Suh, the BBC SO, and Thierry Fischer – but for me they worked very well indeed. Theatricality is not foreign to Boulez, and we are only just beginning to discover the multiplicity of performing possibilities his music offers. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, it is vital that we continue to perform his music and do not restrict it to anniversary outings. Audiences are there; performers are there; there is no excuse.