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Mr. Boulez, Fearless As Ever

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/25/2008 -  and February 26
Matthias Pintscher: Osiris (New York première)
Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3
Claude Debussy: Images

Mitsuko Uchida (Piano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez (Conductor)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra became such a dynamo of precision and electric playing under Sir Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim that their performance under the regal hand of Pierre Boulez, almost by definition, had to be stunning playing. No surprises there.

More interesting was that the fearless Mr. Boulez programmed three fairly unusual works: the penultimate orchestral music of two 20th Century masters, and a complex work with a very complex background by German wunderkind, 37-year-old Matthias Pintscher.

The audience was not given any chance to relax, since Pintschers’s work opened the concert, and one listener was heard to say that the evening began with “castor oil”. That was not true at all, but it certainly deserves more study.

Pintcher’s previous music has taken very difficult subjects—Rimbaud and Thomas Chatterton, the 17-year-old 18th Century poet who committed suicide. But using the Egyptian god of fertility, Osiris, takes more than a brief synopsis. Osiris appears in multifarious guises from ancient to Alexandrian times, but they all involve savage death, the sowing of his body over the world, and reincarnation. The Osiris Mystery, in fact, probably had much to do with the legendary Christ figure once it came to the Mediterranean.

His 23-minute work is a tapestry of orchestra fragments, the sonorities of which are extraordinarily beautiful. While much of it is in electron-size shards, he created a few lengthy sections for violins playing in their topmost range. But he had a surprise as well. Blurting out of the orchestra at times was a muted trumpet, a trumpet which sometimes was playing in 1920's nightclub "wah-wah" style. The mute was retained but the middle of the piece became a de facto trumpet concerto, a most gorgeous interlude.

Obviously a more meaningful structure makes up Osiris, but I could not catch it on first hearing. Yet the colors themselves were so dominating I can still hear them now.

The Debussy Images are rarely played in full, but Boulez not only did all three, but also changed the order to make the longest, Iberia the final one. But Rondes de printemps, opening the piece, has even more remarkable orchestration than Pintscher’s, with virtually every measure using a different instrument. Add to this the strange 5/4 rhythms, and the Boulez regal hand. The Gigues (which Debussy originally called “Sad Jigs”) is supposedly taken from Scotland, but one feels this only once. The most memorable measures are from the sound of the oboe d’amore in a little melody which has almost the feeling of a bagpipe.

Iberia was very Spanish indeed. Debussy had spent only a few hours across the border, but he managed—as much as Ravel or De Falla—to capture the light, the warmth, the nighttime and the castanet-crackling Spanish joy.

And now to Mitsuko Uchida and Bartók’s near-final work, a picture of his wife, the Third Piano Concerto. Today, Ms. Uchida plays a mean Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and, yes, Bartók. But she was best known for Mozart, and for that, she can take the most complex work and give it a Mozartean clarity and eloquence. The Concerto was no exception.

Granted, the first movement was perhaps too sweet and simple and clear. Boulez took it at a relaxed pace, and I have more trust in the daring rhythms of Ferenc Fricsay, who knew the composer well. So, yes, I wanted more pungency, instead of subtle shades of sunshine.

The last two movements, though, were simply wonderful. The “religious” movement played with deceptive simplicity. And the finale with a consistent rhythm jolt with faultless and transparent octave playing by this so radiant pianist.

Harry Rolnick



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