CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Ionarts in Provence: Boulez and Berlin Philharmonic

Saturday evening’s performance by the Berlin Philharmonic as part of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence involved truly constructive programming. Held in the Grand Théâtre de Provence – just inaugurated on June 29, with very fine acoustics and a low-budget look – the program consisted of sets of pieces for orchestra by Bartók, Schönberg, Webern, and Berg, all of which were composed between 1909 and 1914. These hyper-formal, expressionistic works run counter to the decadence of late Romanticism and, one hundred years later, sound disturbingly fresh to most ears. Hearing works of the Second Viennese School together (plus Bartók) begs one to ask whether contemporary classical music in the 21st century has surpassed these monumental works in regard to formalism.

The confidence and, one might say, big ego of the Berlin Philharmonic may be observed before the music begins, when the orchestra is assembling on stage. Under the minimalist (and baton-less) conducting style of Pierre Boulez, this authority translated into memorable music making, where every line is espressivo and each phrase is pushed to the limit while keeping in overall balance. The first violin section showed leadership in terms of espressivo playing, not volume; and in addition to aural awareness between sections of the orchestra, visual contact was also observed between its musicians. This ideal level of coordination allowed the ensemble to play as one big musical whole – a model for most American orchestras to imitate.

Bartók's Four Pieces for Orchestra, op. 12 (1912), opened the program, and its first piece (Prèlude) began with a shimmering orchestration of harp glissandi and soaring flute and violin lines. Perhaps this lushness was a way for Bartók to hook an audience accustomed to Romanticism before delving into the chaotic material of the Scherzo. The fourth movement (Marche funèbre) contained dramatic silences and a descending motif making its way around the orchestra. Schönberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 (1909), opens in a bombastic way with the timpani having possibly the only motif. This purposeful absence of motivic material is more strikingly found in the third piece (Moderato), where Schönberg creates an even, drone-like texture – broken into Klangfarbenmelodie - that does not allow the ear to focus on one particular place; in turn, the focus of the ear is forced to magically spread everywhere.

Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6 (1909), contains some pieces of less than two minutes in length, though in these gems are an abundance of material. In some ways this work is a testament against the obvious practice of stating and then repeating themes. The back of the orchestra (winds, percussion, and brass) handles much of the playing in this set, especially in the fourth movement (Marche funèbre). The first piece (Prelude) from Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6 (1913-1914), is a palindrome. The third piece, March, contains angular motifs, which have a very wide range of travel, and builds in a simple 4-beat pattern to the powerful ending, where a massive wooden hammer is raised high and slammed down by the percussionist, creating a horrifying cracking sound.

Parallels could be observed in the fourth movements of the sets by Bartók and Webern, both Marches Funèbres, and in the Schönberg, Webern, and Berg, where the bass section repeatedly taps with bow the bridges of their instruments for percussive effect. The young American violist Carrie Dennis – seen in the past in the Philadelphia Orchestra – was the principal violist of this performance and handled solo moments in the Schönberg, Webern, and Berg with care and calm authority. One wonders how far this compositional tradition would have developed without the musical and political dislocations of World War I and World War II.

Further reviews of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence are forthcoming.


Anonymous said...

"One wonders how far this compositional tradition would have developed without the musical and political dislocations of World War I and World War II."

Are you suggesting that that tradition (dodecaphony I assume you mean?) did not get developed much, or properly further?? Or that it pointed somewhere else? Did you mean to suggest anything at all?

Michael Lodico said...

Thanks for the comment. To be less cryptic, I wish this music were more mainstream to modern audiences and had had the chance to blossom without cultural disruptions. An nice example of a belated appreciation of art from this period is found in the 2001 opening of the Leopold Museum in Vinna. Overall, there has yet to be found a mainstream replacement for tonality.

Henry Holland said...

That's fine, though, that there's not been a "mainstream replacement for tonality". This kind of musical modernism will always always always be for a niche audience within the wider orchestral scene and that's OK. I don't expect most people to listen to Birtwistle or whoever, but I wish the people who like the kind of music Mr. Boulez programmed would lay off the special pleading and I wish the anti- crowd would quit blaming Schoenberg for the death of classical music.

That said, the programme sounds incredible and I love Boulez' conducting, hopefully there'll be a CD (or bootleg) recording of this released, I'd love to hear the Berlin Philharmonic play this stuff. I put various performances of the pieces performed on one CD and they fit nicely.

Garth Trinkl said...

" ...begs one to ask whether contemporary classical music in the 21st century has surpassed these monumental works in regard to formalism...."

Yes, I believe that in the 21st century (and beginning in the 1980s and 1990s), Harrison Birtwistle surpassed these works in regard to formalism. I suggest relistening carefully to Birtwistle's Earth Dances and Pulse Shadows (or his Exody, if you can find a recording); as well as his works strictly from the 21st century such as Theseus Game (available on recording) and The Shadow of Night or Night's Black Bird (if you can find recordings). Birtwistle's 21st century 'formalist' operas include The Last Supper and The Io Passion, and well as the upcoming (2008, Covent Garden) Theseus and the Minotaur (which is based upon Swiss dramatist Friedrich Durrenmatt's last work, from the late 1980s).

Thank you for your comment, Henry; and Michael, for your review.


PS. Dante, Josquin, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all seemed to do fine despite cultural dislocations; as did Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Beckman (as least in regard to the First World War.)