Messiaen and Carter Centennials

Ensemble Intercontemporain, Aimard, Damiens, Vichard; Boulez

Royal Festival Hall: Messiaen/Queen Elizabeth Hall: Carter, 13 December 2008 3.5 stars4.5 stars

Ensemble intercontemporain

The Ensemble intercontemporain marked two very different centenaries with their London concerts this week at the Southbank Centre.

The first took place in the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday, and it celebrated the fact that Olivier Messiaen had been born on that date one hundred years previously. The second, given in the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night, was a tribute to the still vibrant and active composer Elliot Carter, who quite fantastically marked his own centennial yesterday.

The Messiaen, part of a year long celebration of his anniversary, had the traditional feeling of distance, of memorialising certitude, perhaps as a result of the composer's music having the status of a fixed body of work since his death sixteen years ago. Things felt quite different on the second night. Carter's inspiring and witty presence infused the hall after an interview commissioned for the event was broadcast on a large screen, before the music had commenced. The wonder of the occasion, a wonder underscored by the vitality of Carter's music-all composed in the last decade or so- that was heard on the night, was tangible.

Pierre Boulez, who founded the Ensemble in 1976, led each of the two commemorations from the podium. Boulez was a student and then a close colleague of Messiaen's, and has been collaborating with Carter for over half a century, so it was fitting and quite touching to be in his company for these notable milestones. Both concerts featured first halves comprised of music written by the subject of the celebrations, with the second halves each being taken up by slightly longer works written by Boulez (Dérive II, given on the second evening, was originally an homage to Carter on his eightieth birthday).

Though the Southbank's Messiaen festival From the Canyon to the Stars has included some astonishing performances over the past ten or so months, the performances of the two pieces selected for the finale concert on Tuesday, and to some degree the pieces themselves, lacked some of the spirit and verve so often found in the composer's music. Coleurs de la cité céleste felt too rote, too routine, as it moved through alternating birdsongs and Alleluias. The performance of ensemble and soloist (a strong Sé bastien Vichard) was quite refined, but the material sounded tired, and the problems some associate with Messiaen- lack of formal finesse and overt reliance on certain rhetorical devices- bubbled over at points. There was a certain grace brought to the Alleliua of the Blessed Sacrament which closes each half of the work, but overall the playing was without character, and some of the slippages of ensemble (with one of the percussionists often straying behind the beat on tubular bells for example) were bewildering for Boulez.

Messiaen

Sept Haïkaï was something of an improvement. The music is made from a similar language as Coleurs, but energy is distributed in much subtler and more versatile ways, and a much grander canvass of colour is employed. The seven movements each exhibit something of the Japanese character of expressivity matched with rigour, with the dancing birdsongs of the tuned percussion and woodwinds overlaying highly disciplined sound distribution across different groupings within the orchestra. The perfumed chords given to the group of eight violins in the second movement provided a glimmering background for the supple melodies of the clarinets, whilst the improvisatory piano writing in the third was made sound bewilderingly exciting by the other soloist of the evening, the Messiaen specialist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Aimard has something of a limited range in that he often makes a grand melodrama out of anything he's playing, but his technical prowess can't be doubted, and in music such as this his touch is unmatched.

The fourth movement, Gagaku, has the violins sounding a strained chord given sul ponticello and senza vibrato in imitation of the shô Japanese mouth organ. This winds out underneath the work's usual different layers of sonorities, and it sounds timbrally convincing, yet the movement never makes use of the silences crucial to the Japanese source. As a result the music, here and elsewhere in the work, sounds too busy, too fretful, and it canít thus fully embed the Eastern influence into Messiaen's own voice.

The highlight of the evening came with Boulez's own sur Incises, a work surely unsurpassed in his canon. Completed in this version (another related piece exists in solo piano guise) in 1998, it consists of forty-five minutes of effervescent sounds spread across three pianos, three harps, and three tuned percussion instruments (or as Arnold Whittall has described this ensemble, 'one single-super instrument'). Boulez has often been maligned since his emergence in the late forties and fifties as a composer who favours ideas over sounds, as someone who arrogantly dismissed music of the past but yet held on fast to a conception of music entirely shaped by that past, and dismissed much contemporary music as a result. As influential as he has been as a fearsomely intelligent interpreter of others' works, his own music has fallen out of fashion somewhat; people seem to favour him as a pivotal figure in twentieth century music, but rarely admire his own work in the same way they might that of his contemporaries like Nono or even Stockhausen.

Yet the hyper-ordering of his mature constructionist music has given away in the last decade or two, remarkably, to a more open approach to composition. As with Dé rive II, sur Incises is a riot of sensuous scoring, gestural dexterity, rhythmic vitality, and enchanting harmonic writing. It contains many astonishing moments; flickering chords spread through the ensemble intermittently, imitative passages where bare and becalmed figures swap from player to player break the relentless marauding flow of the sound very often, and thrusting counterpoint carries tension forward irresistibly throughout. A remarkable attention to detail underpins this surface gloss also though; how often one hears for instance high harp tremolos set against gestures in a similar range in piano suddenly gaining vital scope from the addition to the harmony of one or two carefully selected notes in the percussion. The work is a marvel from start to finish, and with the composer at the helm here the performance was revelatory. Each of the nine instrumentalists held on fast to the sounds of their colleagues to ensure powerful coherence of argument, whilst Boulez himself sensitively shone a light on many of the little details of the score, always with an eye though to the maintenance of the driving pace.

Dérive II the next evening was somewhat less revelatory, but it was in its own way as deeply impressive as the previous night's Boulez. Its music is less propulsive than that of sur Incises, but it is as convincingly worked out and poetic a sounding event. The piece contains a highly wrought play of intensities, flow, and pulse where interaction is once again an important rhetorical ingredient. Passages in shimmering polymetric pulses that echo, albeit in slightly more abstruse configurations, the clashing patterns of Nancarrow and even Reich and Riley (anyone familiar with Boulez's work will realise how astonishing this is), alternate with pools of stasis where rich harmonies and delicate timbral exchanges describe a quite beguiling poetry in sound. The performance made this flow of poly- and para-metres utterly compelling. The ensemble built up a real head of steam into the exciting final stages where the texture becomes dense and turbulent, before finally the music eases into some subtle valediction.

Elliot Carter

The Carter that was played in the first half was in its own way as refreshingly vital and open (in comparison to the music of his maturity) as the Boulez had been, and was to be. Dialogues, a concerto for piano in one movement written for Nicolas Hodges and the London Sinfonietta in 2003, opened the concert, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard again in the solo role. This work immediately brought the audience into the exhilarating world of late-late-Carter (as he described it!), a world where humour (a grandstanding cor anglais for instance), formal transparency, fecund strategies of scoring, and above all a strong coherency of argument and effect, reign. Like the Boulez, the structure was defined by passages of fervent counterpoint and interaction offset by episodes of quietude where ethereal harmonies from soloist were echoed and transformed by the ensemble. So much of Carter's work is shaped by explorations of the concerto principle, whether it be here in the form of soloist-orchestra exchange, or in the Clarinet Concerto (1996) we heard later in the programme (an equally compelling piece which was given a fluent and technically accomplished performance by the original soloist Alain Damiens), in which different groupings of instruments are contrasted with each other, and with the clarinet solo. As such there is a real transparency to the form and effect of his music that counterbalances nicely the rigour and indeed abstraction of the harmonic and rhythmic base he usually works from, in the absence of themes. These two works, accordingly, came off as exhilaratingly as their composer must have intended them too.

Sandwiched in between the two larger works were three short piano solos that again displayed all the wit and vivacity of the composer's voice in the last decade. Matribute contrasted staccato motifs with a more sustained yet wavering melody. This gave Aimard (who again is absolutely at home in this repertoire) the opportunity to show off some dazzling pedal work; his sensitive use of the sustain enabled an astonishingly flexible canvass of articulations to come out, whilst the clarity he brought to the inner voicings was impressive. Intermittences again required delicate pedalling, though here it was the sostenuto pedal that Aimard employed with a effortless touch, thus bringing out all the spectral resonances of the work's play of thematic anticipation and ghostly echoes. Caténaires is a rollicking exercise in perpetual motion where a single line-spread all over the keyboard-speeds uproariously to its logical conclusion at the farthermost ends of the piano. It is an exercise in virtuosity for its own sake, no bad thing when done well of course, for which the soloist proved more than a match.

By Stephen Graham