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Maître avec marteaux

Royal Festival Hall
02/01/1999 -  

Royal Festival Hall
1 February 1999
Pierre Boulez : Éclat/Multiples, Le visage nuptial, cummings ist der dichter, Notations I-IV
Christine Schäfer (soprano), Susan Parry (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Davis (conductor)

Queen Elizabeth Hall
2 February 1999
Wolfgang Rihm : Gedrängte Forme (UK première)
Gérard Grisey : Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil
Pierre Boulez : sur Incises
Valdine Anderson (soprano)
London Sinfonietta
George Benjamin (conductor)

The BBC Symphony Orchestra's concert on Monday 1 Februrary, "Pierre Boulez: a portrait", presented four contrasting and characteristic works. Éclat/Multiples presents an early stage of a serial development that begins with scattered percussion and has reached the first addition of eight violas. Le visage nuptial is a setting for soprano, mezzo and women's voices of the dense poetry of René Char, which celebrates the union of opposites in an overcrowded sound world. Christine Schäfer and Susan Parry sang with a powerful combination of intensity and detachment. cummings ist der dichter is a short playful piece, expertly performed by the BBC Singers. Notations I-IV is also the first phase of work in progress, a set of short, dense studies for orchestra developed from piano studies. Andrew Davis and the BBC Orchestra delivered them with exhilarating, if mechanical, energy and style.

Boulez' sur Incises formed the second part of the concert on 3 February. This is also a serial development from a piano work, now for three pianos, three harps and percussion. Dramatic, as performed by the London Sinfonietta, and less schematic than Notations, it would normally have been an excellent choice as the focus for this programme.

Sadly, the death of Gérard Grisey in November 1998 threw the emphasis  on to his new work Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil. This striking work is, ironically, a setting for soprano and orchestra of texts from four different traditions that reflect on death and the afterlife. The first, "the death of the angel", is from a poem by Christain Guez Ricord. The singer barks separate syllables of the text, with sustained high notes on the second syllable of "mourir" (die) and the word "ange" (angel). The second text is an extract of a catalogue of texts from Egyptian sarcophagi of the Middle Empire, including the catalogue numbers and notes. Words like "détruit" (destroyed) and "presque entièrement effacé" (almost entirely obliterated) contrast with the vision of immortality in the texts themselves, which are set, again, with high sustained notes. A short poem by the Greek poet Erinna reflects on the death of the voice in the underworld, and a section of the story of the flood from the Epic of Gilgamesh is set as disjointed syllables which gradually come together as a narrative that suggests new life and light after the flood.

Valdine Anderson looked nervous and seemed under-rehearsed, but she gave a powerful and committed performance which ended triumphantly. The London Sinfonietta seemed also slightly insecure. But the reflective depth and beauty of this work came through movingly. It is tragic that it cements Grisey's status as a leading contemporary composer but also serves as his memorial.

H.E. Elsom



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