BBC SSO/Pintscher - review

Matthias Pintscher
The Guardian

City Halls, Glasgow

The spirit of Boulez's exclusively fascinating Pli selon Pli was vividly conveyed: Pintscher's authority in navigating its complexities seemed total


Pierre Boulez's Portrait de Mallarmé is now more than half a century old and is not only established as his greatest achievement as a composer, but also as one of the musical landmarks of the second half of the 20th century. Yet Pli selon Pli remains dauntingly difficult for conductors and orchestras, and performances are still real rarities; I'd guess that other than the composer himself, the number of conductors who have conducted the complete work might still be in single figures.

Matthias Pintscher has now joined that select band. He has recently become music director of the Paris-based Ensemble InterContemporain, which Boulez founded, but it was in his role as the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's artist-in-association that he took charge of this performance, with Marisol Montalvo as the soprano soloist.

Montalvo has made her international reputation as Berg's Lulu, and she sometimes brought a theatrical dimension to the soaring vocal writing here. Her tone was perhaps more than ideally edgy, and Boulez's melismas don't atomise the words quite as comprehensively as she sometimes suggested. But the spirit of this elusively fascinating work was always vividly conveyed, and with strings to the left, wind to the right and the percussion arrayed behind both, Pintscher's authority in navigating its tumbling, teeming complexities seemed total.

There was just the right crystalline coolness and clarity about the percussion-dominated textures of the three central Improvisations, and the performance went on to gain steadily in excitement through Tombeau, the final, exhilarating movement. That resolves itself into the prototype of the manic, dislocated toccatas that become such a feature of Boulez's later works, before discharging its energy in the soprano's final phrase with its thrillingly rhetorical horn counterpoint. It's a wonderful ending, that Pintscher judged perfectly.