Ensemble intercontemporain with Lucerne Festival Academy Ensemble / Pierre Boulez / Barbara Hannigan - Royal Festival Hall, 2 October 2011
Pierre Boulez has conducted operas, amongst them several landmark performances, though he’s famously never written one himself. But Pli selon pli suggests he has all the technical equipment. His settings of five Mallarmé poems are alert to text in every way. Structure, syntax and the very sound of the words are reflected as unerringly as their meaning. Between the sledgehammer chords that open and close the hour long work, a ravishing parade of shimmering strings, chinking xylophones and silky winds belie a reputation for ugliness that Boulez picked up over sixty years ago and has never quite managed to shake off.
The Royal Festival Hall date was the last in an extensive European tour. But there was no sense of weariness or going through the motions. The confident, geometrically precise playing of the two seamlessly-melded ensembles was fresh and alert to Boulez’s minimal conductorly stylings – a shoulder shrugged, a wrist waved. With the strings to the left, the winds to the right and the percussion bringing up the rear, the grouped orchestral arrangements were displayed with a spatial clarity that recordings just can’t match.
Soaring over the band was the fearless, ecstatic soprano of Barbara Hannigan. She had her massive scores in front of her of course, but hardly glanced at them. The words and notes seemed her own; the improvisatory spirit in which Boulez first tackled Mallarmé’s poems alive once more. If this was really the last time Boulez will conduct the work, as rumoured, it could have no finer send-off.