Musikfest 1: Two Rituals

Jesse Simon

lunes, 10 de septiembre de 2018
Berlin, sábado, 1 de septiembre de 2018. Philharmonie. Boulez: Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna. Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps. Staatskapelle Berlin. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Musikfest 2018

For over a decade, Musikfest has been the highlight of September in Berlin. The annual festival, co-organised by the Berliner Festspiele and Berlin Philharmonic Foundation, offers reliably fascinating programmes – often with a focus on twentieth and twenty-first century repertoire – performed by some of the world’s best soloists, conductors and orchestras. At this year’s opening concert, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin inaugurated the festival with a tribute to the late Pierre Boulez featuring a captivating performance of his immersive Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna followed by Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, a work with which Boulez was closely associated as a conductor. 

Daniel Barenboim has, in recent years, established himself as one of the most dedicated champions of Boulez’s oeuvre, not only in his willingness to include the works in concert programmes, but also in his desire to demystify them for audiences who might still find the density and complexities of the scores daunting. In the past he has given impromptu spoken introductions accompanied by live musical examples and, on this evening, he prefaced the performance of Rituel with an illuminating (and apparently improvised) lecture almost as long as the piece itself. Mr Barenboim did not merely discuss the unorthodox disposition of the musicians and the formal structure of the score, but was also able to convey a sense of how it all added up to a compelling musical statement. 

The demands of Rituel are, indeed, somewhat unconventional. The ensemble is divided into eight groups dispersed throughout the auditorium in a more or less symmetrical arrangement. The first group contains a solo oboe and a percussionist, the second contains two clarinets and a percussionist, the third contains three flutes and a percussionist and so on. Only the eighth group, which features a brass ensemble larger than eight and two percussionists devoted solely to gongs, deviates from the basic formula. The logistical complexities are reflected in a printed score about twice the size of a broadsheet newspaper. 

Yet if Rituel is a difficult work to perform, it is both mesmerising and accessible when performed well. It begins with a set of reasonably straightforward melodic and rhythmic elements and, over the course of some fifteen episodes, sends them on increasingly complex journeys through the antiphonal hall of mirrors created by the eight groups. Although the work features nine percussionists, the episodes are characterised more by amorphous drift than rhythmic force. Each episode is set into motion by a gentle nudge from the gong and, thus unleashed, is left to resolve itself according to the rules of the piece. At the end of each episode the music comes momentarily to rest before being pushed outward again on a new course. 

Under Mr Barenboim’s direction the episodes were organic and unhurried, and the sonic refractions always appeared to be governed by a clearly defined logic. The musicians of the Staatskapelle gave excellent performances, especially the various percussionists and the massed brass of the eighth group, but it was the ability of the eight groups to phase in and out of union and to pass ideas back and forth across the spaces of the auditorium that transformed the performance into a wholly enveloping experience.

During his career as a conductor Pierre Boulez returned frequently to the ballets of Stravinsky. He made at least four commercial recordings of Le Sacre du printemps between the early sixties and the late nineties, and there were few other conductors who were so successful at reconciling the work’s ferocity with its richly detailed orchestration. Mr Barenboim’s approach on this evening was not dissimilar. When he performed the work in Berlin with the Staatskapelle three or four years ago – some of the performances accompanied a choreographed staging – there was a notable emphasis on the savage pulse that throbs through the work’s most fearsome passages. Although his reading has not changed dramatically in the intervening years, the performance on this evening seemed more interested in highlighting the subtleties of instrumental texture, albeit without losing sight of the work’s ritualistic thrust.

The level of orchestral refinement was apparent from the outset: even as the woodwind lines of the introduction began to multiply and overlap, everything remained crisp and distinct. The low strings that drove the ‘Dance des adolescents’ were heavy and imposing, but one remained aware of the small intricate phrases that worked together to create the total rhythmic effect. If the ‘Rondes printanières’ section never quite locked into a tidal sway, it nonetheless built to an impressively grand climax, and the subsequent sections were punctuated by inspired playing from the brass. In the vast, languid introduction to the second part the orchestra summoned a mood of hypnotic splendour and primeval mystery that could have gone on indefinitely had it not been shattered by the sudden intrusion of the timpani. The remainder of the piece, culminating in a mighty ‘Dance sacral’, was not especially brisk, but the weight of the orchestra and the insistent momentum of Mr Barenboim’s direction gave it a taut excitement.

The idea of music as a kind of spiritual communion between audience and orchestra recurred in various guises throughout the twentieth century, and the ritual significance of the concert performance is one of the themes that will be explored in subsequent programmes at this year’s Musikfest. Yet if Le Sacre was a compelling illustration of a ritual, the Boulez piece was far closer to a ceremony unto itself, one in which the audience functioned as both witnesses and initiates. With its different groups, its rigorous structure and its solemn formulations, the evening’s performance of Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna had all the force and profundity of a rarely-performed rite.


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