Prom 40 – Boulez conducts Jan·ček

After the revelatory From The House of the Dead in 2007, it will
come as no surprise that Boulez has very special insights, which grow from
studying what the composer actually wrote, rather than following received
wisdom. No artist with integrity can copy, and what there is of tradition in
Jan·ček is of very recent vintage. Boulez’s ideas are shaped by
the music itself, in particular the creative explosion of
Jan·ček’s final decade. Significantly, Boulez came to
Jan·ček through reading the score of The Diary of One Who
, arguably the beginning of that surge of inspiration.
The Diary is an extraordinary work. It blends magic, lyricism and
explicit sexual menace, complete with otherworldly off stage voices. Like the
tenor, Jan·ček was embarking into the unknown.

With its confident opening fanfare, the Sinfonietta is dramatic.
In the Royal Albert Hall it was visually stunning, for the 13 brass players
stood up in a row : trumpets and horns catching the light, glowing like gold.
Yet what was striking about this performance was how subtly it was achieved.
Noise alone doesn’t mean passion. Jan·ček played down extremes of
volume for a reason. This brass was bright and lucid, not brutalist, leading
naturally into sweeping “open spaces” heralded by the winds. This
piece was written for athletes celebrating the birth of the new Republic, so
this clean vernal playing beautifully captured the spirit of optimism. Boulez
understood context. The sassy, punchy turns were there like echoes of a
military band en fÍte. Not violent, but impudent and full of joy.

This combined well, with Capriccio, written for a left handed
pianist and small ensemble. It’s as playful, lithe as a cat. The mock
heroic passages in the second part, and the deadpan downbeat figures
throughout were played with warmth: Boulez’s dry humour proved that
there’s more to fun in music than belly laughs. Capriccio
isn’t heard too often. Perhaps we need to reassess
Jan·ček’s quiet wit.

The Proms specialise in spectaculars like the Glagolitic Mass,
with over 200 choristers, a huge orchestra, 4 soloists, and organ. The Royal
Albert Hall organ has 9999 pipes, 147 stops and a height of 32 feet.
It’s the second biggest in the world. Jan·ček was himself an
organist and would have been thrilled. In a small Moravian church, this Mass
would have been claustrophobic, but Jan·ček, an atheist who knew all
about playing in churches, said his cathedral was “the enormous
grandeur of mountains beyond which stretched the open sky…the scent of
moist forests my incense”. Parallels with Boulez’s teacher
Olivier Messiaen are obvious.

Again, Boulez brings insight. With forces like these, any performance is
monumental, hence the temptation is to let sheer scale dominate. Instead
Boulez maintains clarity, so the complex textures remain bright and clean.
Orchestral details count, despite the magnitude of the setting. The four
soloists could easily be heard above the tumult, and the massed voices of the
choirs were not muddied. Good singing too, especially Fried and
O’Neill. In any Mass, there’s a tendency to focus on lush excess
: after all the “story” is pretty big. But as Boulez, himself an
unbeliever said before the Prom, the composer chose to set the words in
ancient Slavonic which few people understood. This creates a sense of
distance, allowing the listeners some freedom of imagination. Of course words
like “Gospodi” and “Amin” have obvious meaning, but
the words are signposts. The action is in the music and how we listen.
Jan·ček is also creating a temporal distance, as if the piece was a
throwback to ancient times and ancient communities that had ceased to exist
even in his time.

The version used in this Prom was an edition by Paul Wingfield based on
the original score, wilder than the more refined edition we’re used to.
Boulez responded to this well, sculpting angular blocks of sound, respecting
the jagged, wayward rhythms. This was echt Jan·ček, that old
curmudgeon ! The movement for solo organ seemed almost sedate in comparison,
but this being the mighty Willits, there was no way it sounded tame.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Leoö Jan·?ek by Gustav Bˆhm, 1926
product_title=Leoö Jan·?ek: Möa glagolskaja [Glagolitic Mass]
product_by=Jean-Efflam Bavourzet (piano), Jeanne-MichËle Charbonnet (soprano), Anna StÈphany (mezzo), Simon O’Neill (tenor), PÈter Fried (baritone), Simon Preston (organ) , BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra., London Symphony Chorus, Pierre Boulez (conductor).
Royal Albert Hall, London, 14 August 2008