Royal Albert Hall, 20-26 July 2012
Boulez: Dialogue de l'ombre double. Alain Damiens, clarinet. One of the works performed at the Proms.
The electronic treatment in the setting of the Royal Albert Hall can't be replicated in stereo.
A composer of beautiful new sounds, Boulez seems weaker when composing on a larger scale, and in this respect programming next to Beethoven didn't help him.
The achievement that might have been: the Proms had secured Pierre Boulez to conduct his own 'Le marteau sans maître' (masterless hammer) in a late night concert as the culmination of a week of performances of his works by members of the East-West Divan Orchestra. It didn't happen, but I can't say whether the performance suffered because of this cancellation by the great conductor.
This might suggest I need to be more familiar with Boulez' works, though in fact Marteau is one of his most famous compositions, and I've heard it several times. And it presents a problem for me, and I think for any audience, one that might help in assessing this music.
For it is undoubtedly difficult and 'modern' if by this we mean we can't hum it. But many of us also find it beautiful, as evidenced by the silence within the huge Royal Albert Hall during performances last week, interspersed with Beethoven's symphonies.
This beauty is mysterious, something to do with atmosphere and colour, rather than melody, and is a remarkable achievement. Boulez emerges as a master of sounds, and clearly related to Debussy. This is so even when the instruments involved are a violin or clarinet 'orchestrated' by electronics, as with two of the pieces ('Dialogue de l'ombre double' and 'Anthèmes 2').
With music, achieving beauty is sufficient. We don't ask what the beauty is for, to what purpose it is being put. There is no need to question our feelings, to see if they are appropriate. Composers often want more than this, and so set words or attempt to communicate in other ways such as the symphony.
For on the larger timescales, beauty really isn't enough, we need a sense of drama, of struggle, of resolution. We can listen to dance suites, where each dance is beautiful, but our attention wanes. Perhaps it is ironic that Boulez was programmed next to Beethoven, in whose symphonies movements are successfully transitioned into a dramatic whole.
Boulez attempts this in 'Dérive 2', a 45-minute continuous piece of music. It is very beautiful, and doesn't rely on the hypnotic repetition of contemporaries such as Philip Glass, and that impresses in itself. But we encounter the fundamental problem I mentioned above. The composer too refined to employ a hummable melody turns out to be too refined for drama. The piece has no climax, and limited sense of propulsion.
This self-defeating refinement brings me back to Le marteau sans maître. However marvellous the sounds are, I find myself wanting to hear the words if words are set by a composer. And Boulez intentionally sets meaningless phrases by René Char, themselves difficult enough, in such a perverse way that the soprano may as well be singing syllables.
It is a peculiar situation. As theorist and conductor, Boulez has expressed extreme opinions, often amusing and correct. Yet as a composer he seems reluctant to do anything that might seem vulgar, such as interpret a poem or give a piece any of the rhetorical flourishes that make Beethoven's symphonies so successful.
Commending the performers for their playing seems unecessary compared to the thanks we owe them for giving us the opportunity to hear these sensuous works at all.