Marisol Montalvo (soprano) sings Pli selon pli by Pierre Boulez

Some years ago I saw a very good production of Berg’s opera “Lulu” in Basel. Lulu was played and sung by the American soprano Marisol Montalvo. I stress “played” because on the strength of her performance I thought that if she wasn’t a good singer she could be a good actor. (It’s less rare these days for opera singers to be good actors in operas, but it’s still worth remarking on. And I very much like that the English and German for “play” also has the “playful” meaning.)

So I was delighted yesterday when after I’d listened to a BBC Radio3 “Hear and Now” broadcast of Pierre Boulez’s “Pli Selon Pli” [Fold upon fold] the announcer said that the soprano soloist was Marisol Montalvo. – BBC Radio3 broad cast of Pli selon pli

I don’t know how people unfamiliar with Boulez’s compositions would react to hearing “Pli selon pli” on radio (or CD): I think it’s easier to listen to unfamiliar music if you are actually in a hall – that’s certainly the case for me.

*BUT* – if you have open ears, then I think it’s possible to appreciate the sensuous, sensual and seductive sounds of “Pli selon pli” – at any rate, it must be worth trying the first few minutes. (If it helps, what I very much like about “Pli selon pli” – and about another major Boulez piece “Le Marteau sans Maitre” – is the sounds. It’s possible that my subconscious is also reacting to the structure of these pieces, but I doubt it: I don’t think I’m that musical.)

I can’t resist quoting two comments the BBC Radio3 presenter Ivan Hewett made:

1. Near the start of his introduction to the broadcast: “It was a riveting performance given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra”.

2. At about 16 minutes into his introduction: “It was an extraordinary taut and yet vibrant performance, and the thing that made it particularly special for me was the soprano, Marisol Montalvo. Often this piece is performed with a kind of icy frigidity, but she performed it with a Latin warmth which I found completely compelling.”

I didn’t listen to that second comment until after I’d heard the performance, and I was very delighted to hear it. I quibble about the phrase “Latin warmth” – it seems a bit stereotypical, and I think the comment is better if we omit the word “Latin”. But other than that it’s very accurate: see the Herald reviewer’s comment below that “soprano Marisol Montalvo’s singing was exquisite and fun”.

In retrospect (and it’s only just occurred to me) “warmth” is a word that could be used of much of Marisol Montalvo’s performance as “Lulu” in Basel, and which could justly be used of her “performance” after the opera had ended: during the curtain calls she seemed very happy (rightly so – she had given a very good performance), and during the curtain calls she was almost taking on the role of a conductor/director in bringing the real conductor onto the stage – I was so taken with her “conducting” of the curtain calls that I very seriously thought of writing a review of just that.

See the end of this post for a link to the BBC iplayer to listen to this broadcast (available until late on Sat.9.Nov), but first a few extracts from two other websites as encouragement – I very much like that Catherine Robb in the Glasgow Herald wrote of Marisol Montalovo’s singing being “exquisite and fun”.
Catherine Robb – Sunday 6 October 2013
… The orchestra navigated their way through the intensity and offered us a dexterous, impressive interpretation of the music. Soloist, soprano Marisol Montalvo’s singing was exquisite and fun, bringing some light musical relief to what could have been a very serious evening. Her long, lingering harmonic lines seeped in and out of the heavy orchestration, as if hovering majestically above the concert hall. Without her input to the work, it is easy to see how a listener would be lost in this assiduous music. …

Matthias Pintscher on Boulez’s Pli selon pli …

… “In Pli selon pli, the sonorities are exquisite, and they have really also influenced my own writing. Thanks to the amazing metallic sounds Boulez uses – harps, percussion, celeste, the most excessive writing for tubular bells that had ever been heard in music history – he creates an illusion of sustaining, sostenuto sounds. The resonance of all those metallic instruments has intrigued me since I was very young.

“Mallarmé’s words in Pli selon pli don’t really tell stories. Instead they offer abstract images that allow our imaginations to create our own experiences and associations. That’s how the texts, and Boulez’s word-setting, involves us. In Pli selon pli, Boulez takes us by the hand and leads us into this astonishingly beautiful garden and we are free to walk around it in any direction we choose. I love art that allows us to approach it as individuals, which doesn’t give us a complete, closed, hermetic message.

“And this work is emotionally very strong, because it’s great music! It’s like Ravel, in that it conveys such a strong and powerful emotion under all these layers of thought and pristine construction. Bach is another good example: think of the extremely precise structures of the Goldberg Variations, but when you encounter it, you are blown away by the sub-layer of genuine musicality and emotion.

“Pli selon pli is definitely one of Pierre’s most directly emotional works. The final movement, Tombeau, ends with the word ‘mort’ (‘death’) and then there’s this huge crescendo in the ensemble. It leaves you completely emotionally torn, asking questions – what condition are we in? How do we go forward? We are so shaken by it, and now it’s our turn to move on, or to try to. It’s overwhelming.”
Boulez – Pli selon pli
First broadcast: Saturday 02 November 2013
Availability: 6 days left to listen [available until late on Sat.9.Nov]
Duration: 1 hour, 30 minutes
[Note that “Pli selon pli” itself is about one hour.]

Pierre Boulez’s Pli selon pli a classic of French modernism recorded in a concert given last month at City Halls, Glasgow by the soprano Marisol Montalvo and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Matthias Pintscher

Ivan Hewett talk to Matthias Pintscher about a work which encompassed more than 30 years of Boulez’s composing life.

Although based on a text by Stephan Mallarmé, as Matthias Pintscher says: “Mallarmé’s words in Pli selon pli don’t really tell stories. Instead they offer abstract images that allow our imaginations to create our own experiences and associations…. Boulez takes us by the hand and leads us into this astonishingly beautiful garden and we are free to walk around it in any direction we choose.”

Also in the programme, Une page d’éphéméride, pour piano, one of Boulez’s latest compositions is played by Hideki Nagano (piano) [*and* a piece by Frank Zappa]

Presented by Ivan Hewett

Boulez: Pli selon pli (Portrait de Mallarmé) for soprano and orchestra
Marisol Montsalvo (soprano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Matthias Pintscher conductor (and Artist-in-Association).


About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
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