This week marks the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and to mark the occasion i’m going to explore three of his concerto-esque works, beginning with Mémoriale, composed in 1985. Well, that’s not strictly accurate; one of the characteristic traits of Boulez’s output is an ongoing tendency to rethink and recompose previous work. It all began in 1971 with the death of Igor Stravinsky, when Tempo magazine invited various composers to contribute short pieces for a commemorative issue, published late that year. Boulez demured (the request was for canonic works, which he found both a strange and unappealing idea), but it began a thought process that would lead to the first incarnation, in 1972, of a work for three instruments titled …explosante-fixe…. It was soon replaced with another version for flute, clarinet, trumpet, three strings, harp and electronics, but Boulez was dissatisfied with this version too due to complexities with controlling the technology (involving an evidently cumbersome and fragile device called the Halaphone). Some years passed before, in the early 1980s, Boulez began working towards a new version, now collaborating closely with Ensemble InterContemporain’s principal flautist Lawrence Beauregard. When Beauregard died in 1985, Boulez decided to take some of the material from …explosante-fixe… and rework it into a tribute, which became Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Originel) for flute and eight instruments.
Despite employing nine players (the ensemble comprises two horns, three violins, two violas and cello), Mémoriale sounds smaller and slighter than that, demonstrably chamber music; in part this delicacy is brought about by imposing practice mutes on the strings, while the horns are restricted to very soft dynamics, enabling the flute to dominate easily. Far from elegaic, the piece is relatively light and full of movement, although it has a fundamentally fragmented nature, resulting in a halting episodic structure of warm, florid activity interspersed with moments of silence. However, this doesn’t work against the flow—if anything, it seems to ‘humanise’ the music even more, creating pauses not merely for breath, but for reflection and remembrance. Boulez’s soundworld is emphatically impressionistic—he could almost be described as channelling the spirit of Debussy—feeling at times almost swooningly hot, the flute’s dramatic, inquisitive melodic line seemingly frazzled into streams of tremolandi and fluttertongue, as though its surface was gently simmering. The ensemble is wholeheartedly supportive, reinforcing the back and forth between turbulence and repose, imitating the flute’s behaviour and providing it with a kind of intricate lacework around which it can go where it wishes. As in many of Boulez’s later works, there’s an overt sensual beauty pervading everything, but Mémoriale is nonetheless somewhat intangible, like trying to discern shapes out of wisps of steam.
This performance was given at the 2012 Proms by flautist Guy Eshed with members of the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim.