Every year the BBC Symphony Orchestra honours a great contemporary composer with a day-long programme of concerts, films and discussions. This year the choice could only be Pierre Boulez, as the great commander-in-chief of musical modernism turns 90 in a few days’ time. Boulez was too frail to be there, alas, which gave a melancholy undertow to the proceedings.
The weekend was packed with aural seduction. By the end my ear was saturated with the glittery wash of vibraphone, celeste and harp, and those rich-as-plum-pudding harmonies. Proper modernist that he is, Boulez is scornful of “national colour”, and denies the French musical tradition even exists. This weekend reminded us he’s as French as they come. Those Debussy-ish harmonies and the twiddling ornaments in the melodies suggested Boulez sits securely in a French line going all the way back to the Baroque.
That was one lesson of the weekend. Another was the huge gulf between the early Boulez and the later one. The Angry Young Man who wrote the Flute Sonatine and the 12 Notations (played in the 5pm concert by Guildhall School musicians) wasn’t interested in seducing the ear. Those pieces assailed us with pure ecstatic anger, sometimes expressed through headlong rush, sometimes through a ritual stoniness. Here and there we caught other qualities too, especially in the Second Piano Sonata (played in the 1pm concert). The angular lines in the slow movement were as hyper-intense as anything in Schoenberg. For a moment, the Frenchman seemed very Viennese.