A special and exhilarating performance

Ensemble Intercontemporain and Boulez, Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, June 26th

Varese, Ligeti, Carter and Boulez looked a tricky fixture but in the event it turned out to be one of the most absorbing concerts that I can remember, the commitment and concentration of the ensemble under the calm control of Pierre Boulez making sense and purpose out of some challenging material.

Varese’s Octobre, composed for one each of the orchestral woodwind and brass proved an appropriate opener, not too long but with some sharp and pointed instrumental contributions.

Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto contains a wealth of inventions, the undulating dissonances at the opening of the first movement gradually coalescing to piled-up octaves reminiscent of the opening of Mahler’s first symphony and then dissolving into confusion. The third movement had some attractive and unusual pizzicato effects while the finale featured a visually arresting solo from the double bass player.

Elliott Carter, star of the show at last year’s festival, was represented by his What are Years, based on the poetry of Marianne Moore and superbly sung by Claire Booth. The first song was angry and intense but the slower second featured prominent parts for harp and cello and Booth’s clear diction and cool delivery made for a memorable reading. The remarkable vivacity and invention of the composer, comfortably into his second century, surfaced repeatedly and the soloist gave her all to earn a rapturous and well-deserved ovation.

At 45 minutes Boulez’s Derive 2 is longer than many established symphonies and could be considered to have less immediacy of access and variety of interest. Yet not for a second did I lose concentration or experience boredom. Part of the excitement is in the activity of the performance itself, scurrying strings, ostinato woodwind and occasional moments of harmonic reflection as the river slows its pace. It is not easy to relive and almost impossible to capture in print. Yet there was something special and tangible in the air as the music surged to its exhilarating close. And the soberly-dressed quasi-retired bank manager who oversaw it all, yes, not only did he conduct it but he also composed it. What a truly remarkable man.

Gareth Jones