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Garrett and Loft

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/03/2002 -  10/04/02
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto # 1
Arnold Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra
Richard Wagner: Overture to Tannhaeuser
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto # 3
Pierre Boulez: Originel
Anton Bruckner: Symphony # 9

Radu Lupu (piano)
Mathieu Dufour (flute)
Chicago Symphony
Daniel Barenboim (harpsichord and conductor)

One of the most unusual aspects of the life of Arnold Schoenberg is that he became a world renowned academician and theorist, his treatises and methods still studied and emulated today, although he himself was an autodidact who learned more standing outside the Vienna Opera night after night, straining to hear the Wagnerian music of the future, than he would have ever absorbed if he had been solvent enough to study at conservatory. Schoenberg burned with an outsider’s fanaticism to absorb all of the rules of music, the more arcane the better, but also smoldered with the fire of iconoclasm that spurred him on to systematically break them all. One could convincingly argue that the most revolutionary work of music since the ”Eroica” was his Five Pieces for Orchestra and part of the proof of the thesis is that this powerful work still sounds wildly radical in the 21st century.

Beyond the obvious pantonality (Schoenberg hated the term “atonality”), the quintet of sound paintings reveals entirely new thinking in the areas of dynamics, elasticity of form, juxtaposition of moods, timbral pairings and dream logic. Since the composer was also an extremely talented painter of a particular time and place, it is easy to classify him as an expressionist, but elements of cubism and pointillism also appear in these pieces, predicting in their kaleidoscopic perspective the advent of the twelve-tone system, order inherent in the chaos. A fine performance of these frozen acoustical moments (aural vignettes, if you will) must perforce be deeply involved in the application of generous dabs from the palette. As Felix Greissle’s arrangement for chamber orchestra demonstrates, there is something inherent in the harmonic conception and realization that anticipates the expressive instrumentation (similar to Mussorgsky’s “old castle” theme so splendidly evoked by Ravel’s saxophone). In fact, the third piece has as one of its subtitles the single word “colors”.

Schoenberg’s self-enforced isolation (one of his essays is entitled “How One Becomes Lonely”) reminds of another place of musical exile, the organ loft. On this particular desert island, where one hears music totally differently from anyone else in the entire cathedral, the unique color schemes of Anton Bruckner were allowed to develop at the leisurely pace of a mushroom forest. For painter and organist alike, no one else is necessary for direct communication with an audience and highly individualized spectra are created to inhabit the aural universe (there is also a corresponding sound world hatched from the innerlichkeit of Beethoven’s deafness). Certainly Bruckner possessed a signature sound, but there are echoes of its reverberations in the other great composers who spent their time in the loft: Franck, Rheinberger and Messiaen, for example. Sometimes there is a spillover on to Bruckner’s apt pupil: the ending of tonight’s 9th Symphony recreated with higher “stops” by Mahler to conclude the Andante of his own Symphony # 6.

Owning a great instrument brings with it a palpable sense of responsibility. The Chicago Symphony is a finely tuned but rather high-strung vehicle. The brass section, considered by many the finest in the world, towers over the strings in richness and first impression. For the ensemble to sound at its best, the conductor must be a delicate balancer, a juggler as committed as the one in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, constantly aware of the nuances of a mezzo forte changing into a mezzo piano. However, during his tenure there, Daniel Barenboim’s efforts have been consistent only in their inconsistency.

These two initial Carnegie concerts (I missed the actual opening night) were, as a totality, a rather disappointing affair. The CSO brass so completely dominated the reading of the Brahms First Concerto that often inner voices became the ersatz melody while the lush lyrical writing of the master was subsumed into the underlying harmonic role. Add to this an uncharacteristic off night for soloist Radu Lupu and the effect was amateurish and more than slightly irritating. An attempt was made to portray the atavistic side of the piece, similar to the manner in which von Karajan used to present the Requiem, but Lupu’s big gestures often fell flat onto wrong notes at the keyboard. Maestro’s love affair with his trombones made for a superficial and rather kitschy concluding Tannhaeuser overture.

But sandwiched in between was a fabulous performance of the Schoenberg. Colors were everywhere and Barenboim’s sense of the dramatic in the peripeteia, his melancholy in the vergangenes (interestingly translated in the program notes with a Proustian “things past”) and his deep but subtle shadings by the lake were very moving. This ubiquitous chameleon had proven himself an excellent interpreter of the difficult later dodecaphonic Piano Concerto and his affinity for this music was tonight powerfully displayed. The rendition was crisp and clean and quite obviously well rehearsed (perhaps it had consumed an inordinate amount of the allotted preparation time).

The second night featured one other wonderful realization. I have heard Boulez conduct the entire explosante-fixe live before, but I would have to say that this excerpt, featuring three flutes from the CSO ranks, was at least as penetrating and crystalline in its beauty. Surrounding it though were a simply ridiculously fast paced Brandenburg 3, which seemed to be on the program only to showcase Barenboim’s ability to sit at a harpsichord, and an ultimately less than satisfying Haas edition of the mighty 9th. Actually, the first movement of this most spiritual of experiences was very well played, only a few interpretive senior moments worth noting (one of the more suspect quirks of this particular leader is that he often seems to have lost concentration when it is most needed). The balance of the group was perfectly fine, the horn section, with its longtime first chair Dale Clevenger, especially impressive. The second movement, however, was slovenly, the desired clenched fist replaced by the limp wrist, the overtones gamboling about with the shepherd asleep in the meadow. The heavenly adagio is painted with great care on a canvas of silence and here the CSO interpretation truly fell apart. Instead of the negative space so necessary for inner contemplation of the glory of God, this ensemble’s inability to stop even on a half dollar filled the ether with stray dissonances of escaped reverberation, ironically reminiscent of the organ loft, but hardly the effect for which the composer was going. That heralded brass, especially the high trumpets, became screechy. Further, the posturing of an extremely long silence at one critical point, a pregnant pause worthy of Madame Dionne, was simply an embarrassment for this maddening performer (and for us). Barenboim did not even leave the stage at the conclusion, adopting a totally drained aspect (see how I have given my all for my art?) as a final tribute to himself (odd, since he seemed to have taken several naps during the performance itself). What had the potential to be a great painting in sound was in reality only a funhouse mirror: a distorted view of the composer and an exaggerated portrait of his interpreter.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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