January 9/10, 2019: London (Barbican): Abrahamsen let me tell you
Boulez’s compositional output, ring-fenced during his lifetime, is bound now to grow. The prospectus for next season at the Philharmonie de Paris promises an early piano piece, Prélude, toccata et scherzo, to be performed in public for the first time by Ralph van Raat. A much bigger question was answered at the same place on April 10, when the Diotima Quartet gave the joint world première (with the Arditti almost simultaneously in Berlin) of the fourth movement of the Livre pour quatuor, the work that occupied Boulez for almost a year and a half when he was in his mid-twenties and recovering from – also pursuing – the demolition work of his Second Piano Sonata.
Except in the third and fifth of its six movements, the quartet does not hold still for long. Listening to the Diotima performance felt a bit like to trying to keep hold of a large octopus having tentacles studded with diamonds, these being the exquisite sounds and telling gestures produced by individual players in every bar. Or one might have thought here was a quartet shredded, a rushing succession of wonderful moments being played out of sequence. Delight and bewilderment, then. And probably mutually dependent. This is music that is always refusing continuity, a refusal that is essential to its bristling beauty and that ends up achieving the wholeness so adamantly being questioned.
As expected, the fourth movement is not so different from the second (but without the drama) or the sixth (but longer). Quite unexpected, though, and very powerful was the effect it had on the whole, not just simply in extending the work to around an hour but also in separating the two largely slow movements, the aforementioned third and fifth. The fifth, now arriving after the almost unrelievedly fast and spiky fourth, came across as one of the great string quartet adagios: sonorous, finely detailed, expressive. This was the music, more than the fourth movement, one felt one was hearing for the first time.
1 Pascal Dusapin: Item – solo cello music played by Arne Deforce (æon)
We tend to think of exactness as concentrated, and to that degree confined. An exact point will be as small as possible, an exact line as narrow. But what Arne Deforce discovers here is an exact fullness, a sound that is stretched tight to the far edges of all it can be, with nothing spilling over as accidental. Harmonics will be accompanied by the whisper-rasp of hair on string, but this, too, is part of the sound. Everything is meant. And therefore everything is meaningful.
Coming so soon after his remarkable double album on the same label devoted to a very different composer, Richard Barrett, the achievement is astonishing, and yet it depends on the same control of dynamic envelope and colour, the same fine tuning, the same long breath, carrying right through a movement.
The cello – or, one should say, Deforce’s cello – turns out to be as apt an instrument for Dusapin as it was for Barrett, but in another way, an instrument vibrating in sympathy with its siblings across the Eurasian landmass, and yet separated from those siblings. Immer, perhaps the pinnacle piece, has a first movement strongly evoking North Indian music, in its variation of short modal phrases, its decoration of notes, its colours, its occasional pauses when an avenue has been for the moment exhausted. And yet there is the sense, too, of the written. The music is the perfect image of what it is not.
Slow, the second movement places the emphasis not on variation, and therefore on momentariness, but rather on what persists, revolving through grave double stops in the bottom register, through harmonics, and through low melody that holds fast to its flickering disintegrations in bounces of the bow or noise effects. The finale, again slow, restores the Asian character, but once more under the sign of a question mark. This is music that is absolutely present, but cannot find its place in the world.
Listening through Dusapin’s solo cello music chronologically, as Deforce’s programming encourages one to do (with occasional ventures into pieces with clarinet – Dusapin has two of these – or for clarinet alone, the companion musician being Benjamin Dietjens), one is likely to be surprised by the arrival of Dusapinian modality in Invece, a piece from 1992, after the intemperance of the previous decade’s output. (There is a similar shock in the procession of Dusapin’s first five string quartets provided by the Arditti on the same label.) Go back, though, and the earlier music may be found not so different, in its search for foci that will always turn out to be labile, for an identity that, in being inhabited, vanishes.