Many people are somewhat reserved about attending concerts where contemporary music is played. Probably, these reservations are sometimes appropriate, but whenever you stumble upon Pierre Boulez performing with his Ensemble intercontemporain and Lucerne Festival Academy Ensemble, you might want to consider gracing the performance with your presence. Especially when Barbara Hannigan is taking care of the soprano part.

This Saturday such an occasion occurred in the Concertgebouw Amsterdam and I had the opportunity to see the 86 years old maestro conducting his own work Pli selon pli (fold by fold) in a packed concert hall. As the score requires quite large quantities of musicians and even larger quantities of percussion, the stage was even more crowded. Pli selon pli is a five part piece of about 70 minutes, with complex architectural forms, complicated texts and no catchy tunes whatsoever. That could have been quite a demand on anyone’s concentration, if it wasn’t for the performers: just like analysing a full soccer match minute by minute can be quite a challenge, if you get carried away with a good game nothings seems more exciting, logical and important.

In Pli selon pli Boulez sketches the life of the 19th century French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, starting in ‘Don’ (the first movement) with the birth of a life, of a poem, of music. Using a James Joyce-like fragmentary anticipation he comments musically on what has yet to come in the following movements, starting with the full power of the ensemble. As the next three movements (three ‘Improvisations’) unfold, the playful nature of text and music becomes clear: all three movements are set on sonnets by Mallarmé, but every movement illuminates a different formal aspect – the overall form in octave and sextet, the underlying rhyme scheme and the qualities of individual words and syllables. Text and music present themselves, so to say, ‘fold by fold’. The force with which the piece started gradually decreases to a minimum in the third movement and from that point onwards sounds are getting more powerful again. In the final movement, ‘Tombeau’, there is just one line set to music: “Un peu profond ruisseau calomnié la mort” – a shallow stream caluminated as death. With the same force as the pieces started 70 minutes earlier, it suddenly is over. With this concentric form Boulez tries to say, as did Mallarmé, that “a work has no beginning, nor an end, it can only give you that impression”. In times when our scientists are confused about the possibilities of time, the art can present us with parts of the answer, as did for instance the former teacher of Boulez, Olivier Messiaen, before him.

Boulez conducts his work with a relaxation fitting a man of his age, but the ensemble responds razor-sharp nevertheless. They seem to pick up every detail written in the music, told to them during rehearsals and communicated during performance. The result is a staggering continuity of progressing tone colours. The instrumental combinations and interplay are very well balanced indeed. The woodwinds seem to have a little less feeling for the constitution of the whole, but the percussionists compensate for this predicament with flawless subtlety. What annoys me most, however, is the piano they used. If I am not much mistaken, it is the Concertgebouw’s ‘orchestral piano’, which is a baby grand they use on crowded stages. Oh, what an improvement it would have been if they had used a richer and warmer concert grand.

But then there is Barbara Hannigan. Every deficiency I might have noted will not discredit her performance by any means. Technical difficulties don’t exist with her, even in the most demanding passages with the largest intervals and using the highest register. When she wants us to pick up the words, we will. When she wants us to be poised at the edge of our seats to catch her almost voiceless sounds, we will be. I’ve mentioned the splendid balance in the ensemble before, but Hannigan unfolds a quite new order of balancing tone colour: like an illusionist, she can let us think she is singing when she’s not and vice versa.

Pierre Boulez concludes this tour with his Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Lucerne Festival Academy Ensemble and Barbara Hannigan next week in Paris, Munich and London.