This summer’s online edition of the Pierre Boulez Saal's Festival of New Music is offered under the banner of Distance and Intimacy, but the third concert – which premiered on 11th July and remains online for 30 days – seemed also to suggest the conflicts and split personalities which may come from extended isolation.

A Festival of New Music (Olga Neuwirth's <i>coronAtion II</i>) © Monika Rittershaus
A Festival of New Music (Olga Neuwirth's coronAtion II)
© Monika Rittershaus

The concert, held in the beautiful Frank Gehry-designed Berlin theatre, featured premieres of works by Benjamin Attahir, Phillipe Manoury and Olga Neuwirth, and – as with each of the festival’s four programs – a work by Boulez. On this evening, it was his rarely performed nonet Mémoriale (...explosante-fixe... Originel), conceived as a dedication to Igor Stravinsky in 1971 and revised several times before 1994. It is the rare example in Boulez’s chamber work of a piece for soloist, here the flute, and handled by the exemplary Emmanuel Pahud. The brief, single movement is anchored by a pair of horns and colored by strings, but the flute at the center of the short drama. 

Pahud delivered the quick trills and shifts in register with a wonderful evenness of tone. So strong was his playing that it was a joy to hear him play Manoury’s Soubresaura unaccompanied. In an onstage discussion with conductor Daniel Barenboim and head of Saal publications Philipp Brieler, Pahud likened the piece to a goat frolicking in a field and a thief discretely escaping the scene of the crime. It seemed more profound than that, however, opening in exposition and developing into pronouncement like a dramatic soliloquy. Pahud played with articulation and precision, like a stage actor, not forgoing the emotional impetus, even volatility, of the score. If the thieves and goats were lost, they were lost magnificently. 

Neuwirth’s coronAtion II: Naufraghi del mondo che hanno ancora un cuore imagined a foursome of instruments (flute, clarinet, violin, viola) as lost and stranded but able to hear each other with Barenboim’s piano at the center. This wasn’t just cinema of the mind; the players stood in the aisles among the empty chairs, all dramatically lit, and played as if trying to be heard, over the distance and over each other. The piano on stage was a moderating force, joining the clarinet in quick glissandi, then entering into dramatic exchanges with droning undercurrents. The instrumentalists soon approached the stage, their stations marked by music stands surrounding the piano. The newfound proximity brought the instrumental lines closer in sync but didn’t resolve their competitive posturing until, as if a command, a single piano chord brought about a single, closing note from the whole of the ensemble. It was a triumph in concept, execution and visual realization, a rarity in that regard, and in just under six minutes. The first three quarters of the program, in fact, contained less than 20 minutes of music. By the end, discussion would quadruple playing time. 

The final piece was by the youngest of the composers and one of Boulez’s last students, and was played by Barenboim and his son, Michael Barenboim, on violin and viola. Such relationships – mentor/mentee, parent/child – were woven into Bayn Athnyn. Attahir is of French and Lebanese parentage, and the elder Barenboim noted that there were overtones of French music and undertones of Arabic in the duet – the kind of observation a critic might be wise to consider carefully but that a maestro can declare authoritatively. The piece also suggested a bifurcated spirit in calling upon the string player to switch between violin and viola and, at least in this performance, to move to opposite sides of the piano with the shift in instruments. Even the title, which translates as “between two”, played on such dichotomy. 

The Barenboims entered the piece in an intense dialogue of slurring tempi and bold interplay, but as it developed, the younger player became the primary speaker. At about 13 minutes, it was the longest piece of the concert, and in some ways the richest. Although Daniel Barenboim said that when he plays with Michael, he doesn’t think of him as his son, the stacking of identity was in the fabric of the piece and was felt in its playing. It felt new while speaking to the ages, profound in its composition, familiar in execution. 

The concert was one of character, of being given voice yet striving to be heard, indeed of intimacy and distance. It did justice to Boulez’s spirit of championing new music at a time when looking forward isn’t so easy.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

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