Mozart’s Omega, Bruckner’s Alpha
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 595
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (“Linz” version)
Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim (Pianist, Music Director, Conductor)
D. Barenboim & Staatskapelle (© Helger Kettner)
“Those early-symphony repetitions come from an object-touching neurotic who made those repeats to satisfy his neurosis.”
Igor Stravinsky, Expositions and Developments
Thus Igor’s ersatz Freudian analysis about Anton Bruckner, a composer whose First Symphony was created when Sigmund himself was ten years old. As well as the first night for a rare ten concerts of nearly all the numbered Bruckner symphonies (the elimination of Symphony 0 and Symphony 00 is unfortunate but not tragic).
If Bruckner can be considered an object of a “festival”, then the evenings between last night and January 29 have a double purpose. For it also celebrates 60 years since Daniel Barenboim sat at the Steinway with Leopold Stokowski on the podium. Since that time, Mr. Barenboim has never looked back. As pianist, as a conductor, as an iconoclastic spiritual mentor to Furtwangler, and as an equally iconoclastic Israeli citizen who has embraced the artistic endeavors of the Palestinian people, Daniel Barenboim is an archetype of the artist who embraces both his art and his world.
Coming to this Bruckner Symphony Cycle, can Daniel Barenboim be considered the state-of-the-art conductor? Thank the singular genius of the composer, there is no such animal. No Furtwängler, Jochum Abbado, Von Karajan or Barenboim can quite embrace Bruckner altogether. Like every eminent composer, he is singular. And when one realizes that even his First Symphony–which he had shoved in a drawer, dismissing it as “a fresh little child”–was composed in the exact middle of the 19th Century, one realizes how the exercise was a premonition of music written in the next century. The opening march was reproduced by Mahler in 1900, and Bruckner’s errant rhythms, the discordances, the lack of “rational linearity” hadn’t been the “right” thing to do.
This First Symphony, which Mr. Barenboim chose to lead his chronological 10 days here, is interesting Bruckner, but not imperial Bruckner. As Roman Markowicz explains below, the conductor opened with Mozart’s final piano concerto, so one would have liked perhaps Bruckner’s Fourth or Fifth as more representative than this initial effort.
Yet, thanks to the amazing 450-year-old Staatskapelle Berlin, and thanks to the conductor (who some would say resurrected Bruckner the way Bernstein resurrected Mahler), even this first effort became, if not heavenly, at least a song of the earth.
Mr. Barenboim conducted his orchestra, where he was made Conductor For Life (shades of Kim Il-sung!), with a tautness, a sense of giving a complete picture, rather than a glory soon to come. But with an ensemble like the Staatskapelle, that was inevitable. This is a group which plays as one. That was heard best with the smaller ensemble in the Mozart, but in this Bruckner, one dared not single out brass or winds or those glowing violins. It is a complete ensemble.
And perhaps for that reason, Mr. Barenboim had to make the extra push to bring out the sudden discords, the abrupt lyrical tunes in the first movement. The Staatskapelle hums along like a computer rather than a 19th Century machine. But the Barenboim hand urges them to consummate Bruckner’s own original lines.
Bruckner’s Adagio, like all his slow movement, is so clearly felt, and so sonorous that Mr. Barenboim easily put the orchestra through its elegant phrases, the arch-like structure a glowing “Amen”.
These movements were Bruckner the Organist. Not that the symphonic writing was thick or stodgy, but that it seemed to have been written for Bruckner’s church. The Scherzo was purely rustic, joyful and inventive. Not eccentrically joyful, not outlandishly rustic. Mr. Barenboim’s Staatskapelle played it with an easy lilt. And the finale, with all the trademarks of the Bruckner exaltation, was warm, controlled and a precursor of more eminent things to come.
It has been more than four decades since I first heard Daniel Barenboim performing Mozart piano concertos. We all knew about his prodigious talent, his gargantuan appetite for all music. He was already at the threshold of the major conducting career.
Yet for him the Mozart concertos always remained a part of an active repertory both playing and recording them.
What I do well remember from those earliest experiences with the English Chamber Orchestra was a dichotomy: most magnificent piano sound in the operatic moments of the concertos and unparalleled treatment of Mozart’s cantilena and something more disturbing, which was his execution of passage work. Here Barenboim’s facility at the piano- and oh, does he have it until this day! - allowed for something I named “one-speed-fits-all”. That characteristic remained with him over the years and sometimes it was a disturbing to observe performances affected by glibness.
Thus, with the greatest interest I attended the first of his performances of Mozart, which was to accompany the monumental cycle of Bruckner symphonies. Barenboim saw a relationship between Bruckner and Mozart, choosing to precede each symphony with a concerto. To his credit the Maestro decided to showcase some of the musicians from the Berlin Staatskapelle in two works Mozart named “sinfonia concertante”: one for violin and viola and the other one for the wind instruments.
For his concerto he chose chronologically Mozart’s last, the 27th. Even though the orchestra is somewhat reduced and in the first movement the work it exudes a feeling of melancholy, I would rather subscribe to the suggestion that Sir Roger Norrington put forward: he belieed as I do today, that no concerto in whose finale utilizes a folk song Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling ("Longing for Spring"). Beginning "Come, sweet May, and turn / the trees green again / and make the little violets / bloom for me by the brook" can be really considered a final work. There is no premonition of death here, though he was personally not in the greatest of spirits.
The first of the six concerts that will have featured Mr. Barenboim as a soloist and conductor turned out to be promising: many of the aspects I described in my reminiscences of past concerts were still there, but on balance the overall impression was more than positive. Previously mentioned “operatic moments” were magic and it seems that in that respect Mr. Barenboim has today a very few peers. He molds those phrases in a bel-canto manner, and colors them according to harmony. The music breathes with the naturalness of a singer.
There is a spirit in his playing that never allows for dullness. Those expecting the measured tones of a Curzon were surprised to hear the first movement taken so briskly. On the other hand the middle movement with a rare tempo indication of Larghetto was unusually subdued. Here the pianist and musicians of his excellent orchestra achieved an extraordinary dialog and beautiful shading proving that we were witnessing a true master. The finale Allegro bounced along nicely with plenty of character and optimism.
Did the problems that made me slightly critical decades back disappear? I guess not and I also presume that Barenboim way of playing fast notes (especially in the finale) “comes with territory” and one simply has to accept the fact that his fingers run over the keyboard faster than the brain can control them. Though one could hardly fault the stylistic aspect of his performance, this pianist –unlike many of his contemporaries, who believe that Mozart score is only a sketch that needs to be filled-in –, eschewed extra ornaments, additions, or fillers and remained faithful to the score paying no heed to nowadays popular school of historically-informed performances.
I wish the piano would face the audience in a traditional way, but obviously it is easier for the pianist to sit with his back to the audience even at expense of more diffused sound. Well, apparently that’s the price we have to pay hearing pianists who also like to conduct from the keyboard.