BIFEM: Argonaut Ensemble, Sur Incises

The Argonaut Ensemble perform Boulez's Sur incises. Photo by Marty Williams.
The Argonaut Ensemble perform Boulez’s Sur incises. Photo by Marty Williams.

Review by Jaslyn Robertson

The stage layout for Argonaut ensemble’s performance of Boulez’s Sur Incises sculpts an image of the sound world to come. Three pianos at the front of the stage are shadowed by three harps—extensions of their resonant strings. Behind, three batteries of tuned percussion give physical form to that ringing resonance that hovers above the music. The lush garden of sounds Argonaut ensemble evoke in their performance of the 1998 work reflects with purity Boulez’s orchestration and texture. The eclectic instrumentation may limit performances of the work, but the collection of timbres allows for a distinctive fluidity between instruments, with harps and vibraphones becoming extensions of the piano.

Conductor Eric Dudley and the ensemble were clearly aware of the importance of decay throughout the work, and exploited this thematically. This is epitomised in the final moment of the concert, when Dudley holds the audience in silence until well after the last note dies out. There’s an ethereal harmony heard in the resonance of three separate chords ending each pianist’s run. The ringing tones of vibraphones, crotales and steel drums hang in the air in moments between dense activity. Boulez’s orchestration disguises the attack of one instrument in the decay of others, blurring the distinction between instruments. Dense piano clusters reduce to reveal a gentle harp melody or crotales take over to continue an ascending passage as a pianist reaches the top end of his range.

Alternation between precisely timed rhythmic passages and aleatoric gestures are a defining feature of the piece. At times, the music lingers in one mindset for a while, as in the fast, strict toccata of the first movement. The musicians in this performance perfected both technical rhythms and interpreted grace notes—unmeasured notes which allow for flexibility. On the latter, the conductor signals only a starting point after which each performer decides the timing of the notes, creating a gentle falling away of sound. The smooth contour of the work was not lost in these parts, a credit to the ensemble’s ability to give expression without hesitation while maintaining coherency.

The performers were not only individually virtuosic, but worked well as an ensemble. Moulding the individuality of their playing, the three pianists often worked to create the same kind of timbre, even at times sounding as one instrument. There was also a sense of timbral continuity between different instruments, with the pianists gently caressing the keys to evoke the sound of harp glissandi or playing low rhythmic passages to imitate marimba.

The ensemble lost no expressivity in this accurate performance of a technically demanding piece. The natural cohesion between conductor and all ensemble members was felt by the audience. A well-rehearsed and knowledgeable ensemble held together a piece that relies on moments of chance indistinguishable from strictly notated passages. Argonaut’s interpretation of ‘Sur Incises’ was a highlight of the festival.

Sur Incises
Pierre Boulez
The Argonaut Ensemble
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
The Capital Theatre
5 September 2015
Jaslyn Robertson



BIFEM 2015

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