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The Iceman Cometh

New York
Carnegie Hall
03/12/2000 -  and 03/13/00
Alban Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra
Olga Neuwirth: Clinamen/Nodus (US Premiere)
Gustav Mahler: Symphony # 6
13 March 2000
Pierre Boulez: Originel from …explosante-fixe…
George Benjamin: Palimpsest (US Premiere)
Arnold Schoenberg: Piano Concerto
Igor Stravinsky: Petrouchka

Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Paul Edmund-Davies (flute)
London Symphony
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

As a conductor, Pierre Boulez has had a checkered career ranging from the triumph of the Chereau Ring of the early 1970's through the dark days of his total loss of control at the New York Philharmonic leading more recently to a rejuvenated life in the recording studio. He has focused his podium career on one period (the early 20th century) and on one aesthetic (the creation of beautifully perfect sonic moments). The results are mixed, strong in some areas and weak in others, and this recent pairing of concerts with the LSO in New York showed off his style in all its glory and with all of its shortcomings. Taking a cue from his mentor Olivier Messiaen, Boulez sacrifices all for moments of sonic clarity and although these tableaux are impressive they ignore the fundamental emotional fabric which is the essence of Western music.

Alban Berg idolized Gustav Mahler. Mahler took to the handsome lad and even enlisted his help in the final orchestration of his Symphony # 7. Berg was particularly enamoured of Mahler's 9th Symphony and modeled the first of his 3 Pieces for Orchestra on its rollicking movement which depicts Mahler's farewell to the rough and tumble world of the musical marketplace. The other two pieces of Berg, Reigen or "Country Dances" and Marsch are gleaned from the corresponding movements in Mahler's early symphonies. Further, the orchestration owes a lot to the master and there is a direct connection between the percussion writing of Berg and that of Mahler in the 6th. However, the Berg pieces are extremely emotional depictions of the horrors of war and military life, foreshadowing his masterpiece Wozzeck, and Monsieur Boulez seems committed to distill all of the feeling out of them and discard it in favor of the purity of the acoustical here and now. When all was heard and done, this was less Berg and more Boulez and the audience was deprived of the genuine feeling that prompted this composition in the first place. Yes, the LSO sounded great, but to what end? The other work on the first half of the first program, the brainchild of a contemporary Austrian composer, relied solely on effects for its identity and was as a result only a pal e imitation of Edgard Varese, complete with lion's roar and siren.

To drain Mahler of his emotions seems a positively capital crime but Boulez was uncompromising and undaunted. His first two movements of the 6th were steady but not strident, regular but not relentless. The conductor seemed determined to not release any of the demons that Mahler unleashes in this work, rather going for a more dispassionate, balanced approach that was beautiful in its own right but much less intense than the score would indicate. The third movement was interesting, Boulez the best ever at elongating the flute solo at the very end to an exquisite degree of both pain and pleasure, but the strings were held in check and we never felt the tug at the heart that should be there (not to be confused with the heart on the sleeve style of many deficient Mahlerites). In trying to trim the excesses of past conductors, I'm afraid that Boulez has cut away some of the meat along with the fat. I haven't picked on a horn p layer in a long time, so let me just say that the current first chair occupant of the LSO is a long way from the great tradition of his predecessors Brain, Brain and Tuckwell and his flubbing of the crucial solo in the Andante was truly unfortunate. In the final analysis, this is not Mahler at all but rather an autopsy of him, more suited to the classroom at IRCAM than the concert hall. The LSO had a very well balanced sound and was impressive as a unit, I only wish that they had been directed more in their sensitivity to the composer's artistic wishes. Perhaps this child of the electronic age is more at home in the recording studio than the live concert venue.

Understanding Boulez the conductor is immeasurably aided by listening to Boulez the composer The work which opened the second concert was a delightful series of beautiful moments for three flutes and chamber orchestra (sans the computer which was originally used for this piece) and satisfied wholly on the acoustical rather than the e motional level. Palimpsest, as its name implies, is a constantly changing auditory landscape, a frenetic etch-a-sketch of differing moods and settings. Mr. Benjamin was on hand to receive the enthusiastic response of the crowd.

By far the best performance of the two concerts was Mr. Barenboim’s highly emotional reading of the Schoenberg. Supremely confident, he began this gorgeous work in the proper Brahmsian tradition, moving rapidly into a more modern idiom as needed. It was interesting to hear a concert where the most harmonically conservative work was written by Schoenberg and pointed out how unfair his reputation has become. Truly this was nostalgic music, longing for the consonant world and unashamedly pleasing to the ear. The orchestra complimented the wonderful pianism, but I would have wished their tutti passages to have been more mysterious and haunting. It was a pleasure though to hear so many inner voices revealed while glorying in the mastery of the keyboard.

Ending w ith a whimper, the LSO presented a sloppy and limp version of the Stravinsky ballet score. Boulez lives and dies as a perfectionist and this reading was just plain inexcusable. After having just heard a greatly energetic account by the Pittsburgh Symphony, I was quite disappointed in the dullness of these tableaux. The trumpets, so vitally important to establish the "Petrushka chord" (the bitonality of C and F Sharp Major) were woefully deficient, slurring their way through the designedly staccato passages. There was never any real excitement in this performance and, of course, no genuine emotion.

Only a hardhearted critic would bash a man on his 75th anniversary, but even the orchestra’s impromptu playing of "Happy Birthday" and the presentation of a huge floral bouquet to Boulez by Carnegie’s "angel" Isaac Stern could not convince me that this was a set of concerts concerned with the highest level of music making.

Some icons just beg to be bashe d.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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