This was quite an adventure – modern music at its most intimate and stimulating. But there is an odd dilemma for contemporary music at the moment. On the one hand, it should be thriving. After all, this is music where spatial awareness is part of its make-up. But the reality is, as Daniel Barenboim says, that contemporary music has also suffered the most during this lockdown because of its complexity and its lack of familiarity. So, never one to sit still, Barenboim teamed up with Emmanuel Pahud to co-curate A Festival of New Music at Berlin's Pierre Boulez Saal, exploring the twin dimensions of distance and intimacy to reflect the current climate. And this second instalment of the series produced more than its fair share of thought and stimulation.

© Pierre Boulez Saal
© Pierre Boulez Saal

As with all the concerts in the series, things kicked off with a short but healthy dose of Pierre Boulez. Messagesquisse, originally written for cellos, was performed here in a composer-sanctioned arrangement for violas. It is a tribute to Swiss conductor and music patron Paul Sacher, without whom 20th century music would have looked quite different, complete with coded and hidden messages within the music itself (the “message sketches”). Yulia Deyneka of the Staatskapelle Berlin played the “solo” viola part, opening with ethereal mystery before a pizzicato section for the full ensemble punctuated the air with spasmodic fragments and a mighty perpetuum mobile central passage combining scurrying nervousness with violent aggression. An episode of shimmering eeriness broke into a free-form solo, contrasting sudden outbursts with quiet reflection, and an exclamatory coda rounded up a finely polished performance, all captured in seven minutes.

Emmanuel Pahud © Pierre Boulez Saal
Emmanuel Pahud
© Pierre Boulez Saal

The next three works, all receiving their world premieres, featured the flute of Emmanuel Pahud in various combinations. Michael Jarrell’s Le Point est la source de tout... for solo flute (épitome II) is an evocative push-and-pull piece. From single melodic lines, it builds up harmonies through the rapid use of notes to create the illusion of polyphony. Pahud performed virtuosically, calling on a whole host of different techniques, sometimes furiously and sometimes centring back onto a single note, the “point” as the source of everything (as per the work’s title). Sudden changes in tempo and varied use of pauses, with some ghostly effects moving into unusually warm tones, characterised this piece, with an immense range of sounds and textures ending on a single note suspended in mid-air.

© Pierre Boulez Saal
© Pierre Boulez Saal

In contrast, Matthias Pintscher’s beyond II (bridge over troubled water) for flute, viola and harp played with space differently, exploring the feel of air, resonance and distance to fascinating effect as though directed by waves of energy. The emotional impacts felt different – each segment felt like a separate breath giving a new sensation, from angry flute, scything viola and alien harp timbres, to the 25-second silence (or suspension) in the middle and the concluding passage of exotic textures and effects moving into subdued breathlessness.

Daniel Barenboim © Monika Rittershaus
Daniel Barenboim
© Monika Rittershaus

To close, Luca Francesconi’s Lichtschatten for flute and ensemble found yet another voice, playing with the light and shadow of the title by interspersing regular flute introductions with uneven ripples in the upper registers of the instruments and fleeting moments of extreme activity. Francesconi’s varied use of instrumentation, including the piano “prepared” in the upper register by attaching metal plates, provided a kaleidoscopic palette for this short but evocative piece.

The performances were immaculate, and both the video direction and sound quality of the live stream were impressive. Boulez said that the only works of art that interested him were those that “allowed for a change of perspective”. In this case, mission accomplished.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

Watch the video here