The 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez is being marked this year by orchestras and festivals around the world. But there will be one very notable absence at every celebration: Boulez himself, now too frail to make regular public appearances. But he was with us in spirit this evening, thanks to conductor Péter Eötvös. The two men have collaborated closely for decades, and the similarities between their conducing styles is eerie. Like Boulez, Eötvös is an efficient and precise conductor. He has also adopted Boulez’ gestural approach, his elbows close to his sides, small, incisive gestures given with the forearms, and players cued with an open palm or a blunt pointing gesture.

Péter Eötvös © Kálmán Garas
Péter Eötvös
© Kálmán Garas

The concert opened with the early but much revised Livres pour cordes. The string textures here are diverse, but within strict confines. The instruments are muted for almost the entirety of the 10-minute work. The result is an even surface, beneath which we hear a range of subtle expressive gestures. This was a curious concert opener, but it succeeded thanks to Eötvös’ commitment to the score and the sheer quality of the string playing.

Those two qualities were also much in evidence in The Rite of Spring. This was a highly charged performance, angular, with stark contrasts and with each episode pushed to the extremes. Eötvös remained his efficient and unflappable self, giving clear and accurate cues, and expertly navigating the complex meter and tempo changes. Every section of the London Symphony Orchestra was on top form here. The woodwind in the introduction were focused and clear, projecting all the complex counterpoint between the parts. The brass, and particularly the horns, provided an intensity to the climaxes, but their tonal control was never compromised, even at the very loudest dynamics. Some impressive percussion playing too, the sheer physicality of the timpani presence giving the music a visceral and dynamic power. Eötvös, clearly aware that the quality of this orchestra gave him greater latitude, drove the tempos, and pushed the dynamics. The results were raw and primal. Utterly compelling.

The final work, Rituel: in memoriam Burno Maderna, felt more like an epilogue than a climax after that towering Stravinsky performance. Boulez’ 1975 score calls for a stage arrangement where the players are grouped into small, mixed ensembles around the stage, the musical ideas passed from one to another. As in the Stravinsky, the percussion took centre stage, this time literally, with the players arranged along the front, each assigned to a different instrumental combination. Two further percussionists stood at the back, playing an array of large oriental gongs. This is where each of the ritual incantations began, starting with gong chimes, then passed to one or more of the instrumental groups. No overt virtuosity here, but arduous challenges for all the players nonetheless. As ever, the LSO proved it was up to the task. The percussionists shone, but all of the sections and groups intoned their ritual lines with the clarity and sombre dignity the music requires.

After driving the Rite with such focused intensity, Péter Eötvös showed another side here, his ability to choreograph a complex and demanding Modernist score. These are specialist skills: giving complex and multiple cues to groups and instruments spread around the stage, in very quick succession and often even simultaneously. He wasn’t often beating time here, it’s not that sort of work. Instead he was required to trigger episodes, and to contain complex textures as they threatened to spin out of control. And through all this he maintained a sense of dignified funereal ritual. Once, only Boulez himself could have achieved such a performance: fortunately he clearly now has successors who are equal to the task.