Though not explicitly announced as such, the penultimate Friday of this year’s Proms had become a tribute to Pierre Boulez, who died in January. Between 1965 and 2008, Boulez appeared almost 70 times at the Proms. The first of the Berlin Philharmonic’s two concerts this year with Simon Rattle and the subsequent late-night programme shared by the BBC Singers and Ensemble InterContemporain under Baldur Brönnimann were programmes that Boulez himself might have devised.
Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, which dominated Rattle’s interval-less concert, was one of the first Mahler symphonies Boulez championed, at a time when the work was even less fashionable than it is today. To some extent, it remains problematic. The Berlin Philharmonic played it superbly – the brass in particular, following the lead of the tenor horn, which drags the opening movements out of the depths, were faultlessly secure. But Rattle’s view of the work and its melting pot of near self-quotations and anticipations of the Second Viennese School composers who idolised him, seemed strangely disjointed. Tempi in the three central movements often dragged, with the sardonic edge to the scherzo distinctly underplayed, while the treatment of the finale did not cohere any more than it usually does.
Before the symphony, Rattle had placed a jewel-like account of Boulez’s Éclat, from 1965, whose soundworld of decaying percussion resonances interspersed with flurries of hyperactivity provides a link between his greatest achievement as a composer, Pli selon Pli, and the pieces that emerged in subsequent decades.
That later music was featured in the Ensemble InterContemporain concert that followed, in which two of Boulez’s own works were interleaved with a pair of pieces that he introduced to the Proms – Bartók’s Village Scenes, inescapably recalling Stravinsky’s Les Noces completed just a few years earlier, and Elliott Carter’s Penthode for 20 instrumentalists, composed for the EIC, which threads a continuously evolving musical line through textures of ever-increasing energy and assertiveness.
Boulez’s only mature choral work, Cummings ist der Dichter, ended the evening, sounding as beautifully poised and teasingly provisional as ever.
Yet the highlight of the concert had not involved either the BBC Singers or the full ensemble, but only its leader, the violinist Jeanne-Marie Conquer, with three sound engineers from IRCAM in Paris. Anthèmes II, for violin and electronics, is perhaps the most ravishingly beautiful and perfectly achieved of all Boulez’s electroacoustic scores. It’s an eloquent demonstration of how he had grasped the potential of the techniques developed at the research institute he founded, and how, despite its sometimes teeming complexity, with the live solo violin joined by multiple digital transformations projected around the hall, his music preserved its elegance and expressive power. Conquer, who played from memory, was a powerful and commanding soloist.
• Available on BBC iPlayer until 2 October. The Proms continue until 10 September.