Philippe Boesmans: Sur mi, Chambres d'à côté, Sonances I, Ornamented Zone, Sextet

Musique Nouvelles/Dessy

La Monnaie, Brussels, 12 September 2010 4 stars

Philippe BoesmansConcurrent with their staging of his opera Yvonne, La Monnaie in Brussels hosted a portrait concert this evening of perhaps Belgium's leading composer, and their composer in residence, Philippe Boesmans (b. 1936).

Given by Musique Nouvelles under the astute and generous direction of Jean-Paul Dessy, the concert featured five works ranging from across Boesmans' career. Emerging out of these works was a sensitive and exciting composer clearly indebted to earlier models derived from Stockhausen and Pousseur, but clearly in possession too of a distinctive voice of his own. The latter was to some extent evident in the tensile rhythmic periodicity of Boesmans' music, but it was particularly apparent in spectral tendencies that manifest at two outer edges of his work; as fields of extended resonance concerned with the music between the cracks of equal temperament on the one hand, and as an openness to octave doubling, to tonal gravitation, and to augmented consonant triads on the other. Boesmans’ music alights at the pivot of spectral music, the postwar avant-garde, and restorative postmodernism, but does so as a conclusion, rather than a premise.

This worked-through multiplicity subtended the second work (following the short but intriguing foreplay of Boesmans' first published work, Sonances I), Sur mi, tantalisingly. Written for the Stockhausen-like ensemble of two pianos, one percussionist, and live (in this case extremely restrained) electronics, Sur mi worked through cycles of piano harmonies—with enigmatic vertical dominant complexes playing off of Boulez-derived serialistic hyper-sequences of overbearing figuration—marked off by colotomic striking of crotales, and enhanced by the high partial apostrophes of the barely-there electronic organ.

The third, Ornamented Zone, utilised the Messiaen quartet of violin, cello, clarinet, and piano to whirlwind effect, subtly developing the tension between an imitative ripple motif on the one hand, and more oleaginous and tonally elastic glissades on the other. The interplay of the musicians was as fluent here as the piano playing had been rich in touch and contrast in Sur Mi. Sextet for piano and string quintet, meanwhile, brought the tensions between the vertical and the horizontal, and more, between a spectrally rich tone-centre and a serial hypertrophy that had been so important to the other works, absolutely to the fore; one particularly rich passage had the pianist insisting on a fundamental with his left hand whilst his right, and the group of strings, hovered in and out of both that tone's orbit, and of tonal definition entirely.

This focus on small ensemble opened out in the concluding work of the main programme, Chambres d'à côté for a chamber orchestra of 21 musicians, to a teeming and exciting web of shifting orchestral colours and variegated formal patterning which took in everything from micro-movements and cross movement referencing, to repetitive formal structures and lissom thematic expansiveness. Here receiving its world premiere, Chambres d'à côté extended the stylistic tendencies in evidence all evening, moving closer to mainstream orchestral models of musical material at points, whilst maintaining distinction throughout. Boesmans' gift for layered instrumental sonority brought the most favour to the work, with flutes (piccolo, soprano, and bass), clarinet, and tuned percussion all interlocking and ascending the cascades of the texture memorably. Dessy and the ensemble should be commended here for their agility in bringing off the work's many abrupt shifts and false endings so convincingly, and, not least, for the liquid mesh of tone-colours which sounded so fluent and so rich across all the undulating energy fields of the work.

Following a warm reception from a sepulchral house, Dessy led the group in two joyous and unexpected encores - the first a rollicking excerpt from Boesman's 2005 opera Julie, the second the fourth movement from Chambres d'à côté, discharged now with even more élan than it had been earlier, though Dessy's attentiveness to Boesmans' small but crucial details of scoring and structure was still as steadfast as it had been in the first hearing.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Philippe Boesmans

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