LSO and Boulez

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris: October 21 and 22 2004

  • October 21: Pierre Boulez, Livre pour cordes ; Gustav Mahler, Symphony N°7
  • October 22: Pierre Boulez, Dérive 2 ; Igor Stravinsky, Symphonies d’instruments à vent, Le Sacre du printemps.
What can I say ? Boulez isn’t a composer I listen to at home, and though I don’t find half an hour of his music “difficult,” the rhythmic complexity and rapid pace make it hard for me to decipher and therefore hard to criticise. The Livre pour cordes left no impression on me; Dérive 2 had more impact and certainly the eleven LSO players involved put a great deal of skill and effort into making a success of its waves of sound and driving energy.

Why is it sometimes suggested the LSO is now below world-class? Maybe my judgment has been clouded by long years in France, where orchestras sound as ad hoc as their members’ tenure is guaranteed, whether they play well or badly. The LSO played like a well-oiled English machine from the days when British engineering meant something other than no trains on Sunday. The brass recall colliery bands, the woodwind recall the Grenadier Guards and the strings are woody yet rounded: British Oak. Their accuracy, control and dynamic range were almost astonishing to people accustomed to French orchestras.

I hardly need try, I think, to describe how the Mahler and Stravinsky sounded under Boulez. You all know how he conducts. To my ear, his approach is good for Mahler, whom his precise, matter-of-fact, sometimes almost expressionless style places firmly in the 20th century, looking forward to Shostakovich rather than back to Bruckner and Wagner. No wallowing here. In Le Sacre, however, I found it led to a rather “deliberate” performance. I might have enjoyed something a little wilder at the end. But what a noisy triumph it was for both Boulez and the orchestra, the odd boo from some fanatics up in the gods being only the exception that proved the rule. This concert was good reminder why I only buy tickets for visiting orchestras, and confirmation of the soundness of my policy.