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The Week That Was

New York
Carnegie Hall
12/11/2000 -  and 12,13,15,16,17 December 2000
Ludwig van Beethoven: The Nine Symphonies; The Five Piano Concerti
Melanie Diener (soprano)
Rosemarie Lang (mezzo)
Robert Gambill (tenor)
Rene Pape (bass)
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano and conductor)

I was fortunate enough at university to study with a man who allotted six months for the reading of The Magic Mountain. He wanted his students to experience this towering work as a totality, to take walks while ruminating on its concepts, to think of its scope and power while dining, to admire its poetry while daydreaming in other professor’s courses. Wagner had a similar idea at Bayreuth, the Festspiel gestalt allowing for an immersion in the worlds of Valhalla and Nibelheim even when not at the opera house (although Tchaikovsky, there as a journalist, did little but complain about the food). I was hoping for a similar experience this week as the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra presented a six event festival devoted to the genius of Beethoven, all five piano concerti and nine symphonies offered as stimuli to carry forward throughout an entire magical week. My only caveat was that their leader and soloist is Daniel Barenboim, whom I have found to be erratic as a conductor in Chicago and increasingly lazy as a pianist in recent east coast appearances.

Hearing these gigantic orchestral works as a body makes one appreciate how thoroughly Beethoven changed music. The ordered and subservient world of Haydn is transformed over time into a maelstrom of emotions, a universe of thunder and Fate, of heroes and has-beens, of drinking songs and brotherhood. Beethoven was the first composer to realize his own place in the pantheon of music history and expressed in tones the same revolutionary fervor that others bespoke with gunfire. Strolling with his good friend on a narrow path one day, he was horrified when his chum stepped off the stones to let a nobleman pass. “You are Goethe; I Beethoven!”, he exclaimed, “let him walk in the mud.” After this deaf madman, no composer would ever again have to enter by the back door. Beethoven was also the first composer to emphasize the Innerlichkeit, the direction of contemplation which would characterize the Romantic age. From this point forward, descriptions of Nature were not enough; a true artist explored the nature of man himself.

Day One: War and Peace

On one end of the Piazza di San Marco there are fourteen statues of emperors of the ancient world. The empty fifteenth, and central, place of honor was reserved in the early 19th century for Napoleon but, much to the delight of the Venetians, he was defeated and disgraced before his monument could ever be erected. Beethoven was not as fortunate as the people of Venice and so had to endure a maturity of regret for having dedicated his Third Symphony to the little corporal. This is the first actual piece of romantic music, classical proportions shattered by depths of emotions never before plumbed. A successful performance of the ”Eroica” must convey grandeur on an epic scale and simultaneously express the most intimate of feelings. This is a slippery slope indeed and many accomplished conductors have effortlessly slid into a morass of cliché, repetition and pomposity. Barenboim’s conception of the work is certainly a grand one and he proved on this opening night that he is a phrase builder of uncommon talents. Hardly even acknowledging the applause, he launched into the opening hammer strokes with the determined air of a general, keeping a tight rein on the many little crescendi that he employed for solid dramatic effect. The phrasing was positively organic, one passage seeming to not only grow out of another but actually to already be present in embryonic form before its turn for auditory presentation. There was the sweep and excitement of the battlefield as well as the quest for personal glory and political triumph. The funeral march is one of the most moving essays in all of music, so eloquent in its power that its hastily arranged performance in honor of the death of Arthur Nikisch propelled dark horse candidate Wilhelm Furtwaengler into the directorship of the Gewandhaus Orchestra (the deeply moved or extremely savvy maestro asking the entire crowd to stand throughout the proceedings). Perhaps this was not the most emotional performance possible, but Barenboim did express the universality of the movement, a fit epitaph for emperor and foot soldier alike. Although both conductor and brass section lapsed in the first half of the finale, the culminating section was tremendously exciting, Maestro unleashing the tympani for a final thunderstorm of Biblical proportions.

The piano concerti are being taken in numerical order and so the program opened with the first, even though it is actually the second in chronological order. Mr. Barenboim has a delicate conception of the piece, and both conducted and played in an elegant manner, producing impressively delicate arpeggios that reminded one of a fine Viennese music box. It is too simplistic to say that these early concerti are in the mold of Mozart; to listen to the elongated exposition of the second movement is to realize the incipient revolution fomenting in the brain of Beethoven even at this early date. The very opening of the work (and the festival as a whole) was a personal statement by Barenboim. Starting in very hushed tones, this fine ensemble suddenly burst forth in a forte of both beauty and power. These are people with whom to reckon.

The Staatskapelle can trace their origins back to the court of the elector of Brandenburg in the mid-sixteenth century. They were transformed into the opera orchestra by philosopher king Frederick the Great and have been performing as such ever since. The string sound at the Unter den Linden is rich and warm, but not at all silken like their neighbor’s tone at the Philharmonie. The attacks are crisp and sure although there was noticeable deterioration as the evening wore on. The winds are surprisingly shallow, unable to sustain an elongated phrase without difficulty. The week ahead is a daunting task and it will be interesting to see how these professionals deal with such a high profile marathon run.

Day Two: The World as Will and Idea

In the 1930’s Anton Webern was engaged to conduct a concert in Barcelona the program of which included the Symphony # 5 of Beethoven. He had three days to prepare the orchestra. At the end of the second day a reporter for a local journal asked him how the rehearsals were progressing. “Good”, Dr. Webern asserted, “we have the da,da,da…DUH almost to where I want it!” The eminent Austrian musicologist was fired the following morning but I’m sure that his proposed concert was not as extensive as the premiere of the piece under the baton of the composer. That enchanted evening the Fifth and Sixth were premiered on the same program (with the numbers reversed) and this was but a portion of the bill of fare. In all of music there is no more famous passage than this opening phrase and its pronouncement heralds an experience as exultant and emotionally draining as any in Western art. Now at the height of his powers and furious at the onset of his deafness, Beethoven is strong enough to write passages that seem to be mistakes in order to resolve them in glorious fashion at the victorious conclusion of this seminal work. One such famous phrase is played by the horns near the beginning of the finale, a dropping down of tone so striking that it disturbingly displeases the ear and leaves an unsettled feel in the listener. Its eventual “correction” leaves the hearer feeling whole again (Wagner, one of the most ardent students of Beethoven’s life and craft, stretches this technique to its limit in Tristan). Orchestral musicians to a man tell me how exciting it is to play this symphony and I am always thrilled to hear its many inner voices exposed in a good live reading.

Many of those voices were audible during Barenboim’s performance. He was particularly adroit at bringing out the second violin and viola parts, so essential to the masculine rhythmic attack that underlies this restless essay on the struggle of the individual versus blind Fate. The orchestra was obviously deeply invested in this performance and did a creditable job of voicing the Jovian grandiloquence that makes this piece unique. I would have wished for more out of the brass section and, after calling in the heavy artillery (eight double basses, contrabasoon and bass trombone), Maestro disappointed by not providing more of a bottom to the proceedings but did keep the energy flowing well enough, expressing the essential triumph of the “I” of the symphony, and was greeted by a prolonged standing ovation at the conclusion.

The evening in macrocosm, however, provided a fit example of why I would never classify Barenboim in the upper echelon of either conductors or performers. The lovely Fourth Symphony, now relegated to overture status by placing it before the concerto and a “major” symphony, was sloppy and uninteresting. The orchestra seemed jet-lagged (these concerts, after all, begin at 2AM Berlin time) and the principal basoonist in particular was often as much as a full beat off the pace. The conductor exhibited that aggravating habit he has of resting at the Bernstein bar, staring off into space while his troops carry on metronomically. As a pianist, Barenboim was lazy this night, fudging badly in several spots and making the quixotically syncopated third movement of the Second Concertorhythmically uninteresting (no small feat, by the way). Perhaps knowing that he had such as showstopper as the Fifth to come, he seemed to be pacing both himself and his minions for the first two thirds of the concert. This may be his strategy for winning the marathon but the paying customers deserve more from these performers, particularly since they have already shown how much they can truly stand and deliver.

Day Three: Prometheus Unbound

Biographer Robert Haven Schauffler said it all in the title. His Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music discusses the revolutionary nature of the composer’s accomplishments from the social, political and musical points of view. Coinciding nicely with the new century (it was conceived in 1800), the Concerto # 3 is the first piece of music to glorify the creator-performer. Without this elevation of the auteur as the force majeure there would be no piano concerti of Brahms or Schumann, Tchaikovsky or Greig, Prokofieff or Rachmaninoff. For the first time, the artist is at least the equal, if not the superior, of the amassed orchestral forces. Listen to the strong left hand of the first movement: this is Beethoven the sonata writer at odds with Beethoven the orchestrator. A classic ego-id battle that remains magically unresolved, for me, the beginning of nineteenth century aesthetics in music is in the movement’s energetic cadenza. Again it is the left hand which bursts through the rhythmic tension (Beethoven was without question the greatest creator of tension in all of music history) to drag us all, kicking and screaming, into a brave new world. One can imagine this larger than life performer dominating the proceedings as no other had ever done before.

The orchestra and its leader seemed refreshed on this third evening and performed at a new and higher level of excellence. The often neglected Second Symphony was extremely tight and carefully balanced in the Classical manner. The strings were at their best, sounding warm but measured and bowing as one player throughout. The overall balance of the ensemble was more pleasing to the ear (perhaps I am just getting adjusted to this particular sound) and there were no rough edges. The concerto was very exciting, Barenboim playing as well as he can, his emphasis on the dramatic spot on. He is not the most accurate of pianists, however in a work with such flair and power he certainly can rise to the task.

The festival experience beginning to work on me as designed, I have been whistling passages from the 8th all week and running the score through in my mind while walking the streets or riding the subway. Although I firmly believe that all of the late symphonies should be performed in as raucous a manner as possible, collectively shaking our fists at the heavens, there is room for Maestro’s conception of a kinder, gentler version. Perhaps taking his cue from the Allegretto, Barenboim presented a politely beautiful reading where the tympani never played above a mezzo-piano. Within the framework of this style, this was a wonderful performance. At the mid-point (there is a night off scheduled for us all to catch our breaths) I would say that this third concert was the most satisfying.

Day Four: Triumph and Tragedy

No movement in all of Beethoven is more affecting than the slow movement of the 7th Symphony. Twentieth century conductors from Mahler to von Karajan have expressed the deepest anguish by layering a very slow tempo with wave upon wave of ever more searing string passages describing man’s inhumanity to man. A favorite among filmmakers to accompany images of starving children or bombed cities, this intensely emotional music never fails to touch an audience to its very core. Recently however, mostly due to the rise of the period instrument revolution, shapers of repertoire have begun to re-examine the movement, performing it at a much faster tempo and emphasizing its rocking characteristics, more a barcarolle than an adagio (it is in fact an allegretto). Whatever the interpretation, this movement is but the centerpiece for a quartet of sections which leaves one only to debate whether the first or the fourth movement is the more terrifically exciting. At my last two Beethoven festivals (the one at present and the marvelous weekends this summer on the campus of Bard College) my prospective invitees invariably asked “will we be able to hear the Seventh?”.

Barenboim certainly subscribes to the slow method of interpreting the movement and wove a convincing tapestry of grief and pain this evening. What was most ear catching, however, was that he began this second movement without a pause after the first (the new opening chord being a corresponding minor to the preceding major). Unfortunately, the effect was marred by the out of tune brass which plagued the first movement’s ending (and later the finale). Again choosing to continue without pause after the second movement was concluded, Maestro proved that it is indeed possible for a concert audience not to cough for an extended period of time.

The key change being too radical, he was forced to halt after the third movement, unleashing a panegyric of phlegm during the brief interval. The last movement began at a ridiculously rapid pace and it was clear almost from the outset that the Berliners were not up to the task. The double bass players were woefully trying to catch up throughout and the brisk tempo was more of a gallop reminiscent of the overture to Guillaume Tell. It must have been clear to the conductor during rehearsals that this alacrity was beyond the reach of his forces. I can only conclude that he consciously sacrificed quality for sensationalism. A fine effort in the Concerto # 4only increased my disappointment in the level of Barenboim’s inconsistency.

Day Five: Intimations of Immortality

That inveterate Beethovenian Karl Haas had the great good fortune as a teenager of studying piano with Schnabel. When his young sister died, the pupil was too distraught to have his lesson. “Take this home and play it”, the old master told him, “it will make you feel better.” What he gave to his student was the second movement of the ”Emperor”, the most consolatory piece of music in the repertoire. Listening to this musical sorcery makes one aware of his place in the universe and leaves one with the sense that all is ultimately right with a surprisingly gentle world. Philosophically at least, the Fifth Concerto is thus linked with theSixth Symphony in that there Beethoven endeavors to paint man as a natural creature who has the ability to perceive himself as an integral and logical link between earthly and heavenly Nature (after all, he writes his program for the ”Pastorale” not as a description of birds and storms but rather of the feelings generated by them).

The Staatskapelle strings played a marvelously bucolic rendition of this great symphony, albeit with some idiosyncratic ideas of the conductor in the shaping of individual melodies. However, the weakness of the wind section made listening to this particular pastoral rather an ordeal. Neither oboe nor clarinet could sustain their solos without choppy pauses for breath and the broad scope of the line was often stillborn. The storm was less threatening than tedious but the final sense of pantheistic good feeling was well enough conveyed.

By all accounts, Beethoven himself was not a terribly accurate pianist, going more for bombastic impact than attention to detail. I was charitably considering that Mr. Barenboim was consciously trying to evoke the composer’s style in the ”Emperor”, making much show of the thunderous left hand and the steely passages for the right, but slurring badly the many runs and arpeggios of the first movement. The second movement was actually quite beautiful and spiritually satisfying but I lost all patience in the third as the pianist began no less than three times in a row on the wrong note, making his extended fingering passages extremely dissonant and disturbing. I would like to believe, as my companion theorized, that the resultant extended standing ovation was a tribute to Beethoven’s music rather than Barenboim’s performance, but the realist in me must confess that I am afraid that most American concert-goers really do not know what they are even hearing and the motivation for the performers to play extremely accurately must come totally from within rather than from any considerations of practical audience satisfaction.

Day Six: The Divine Comedy

Beethoven’s Ninth is so universally beloved that when laser technology was still in its infancy and the compact disc was invented in Japan, its size was determined by how much space was necessary to fit the work on one individual unit (to this day the ”Ode to Joy”, with total audience choral participation, is a tradition there for graduation ceremonies and New Year’s concerts). The message of the brotherhood of man is a powerful one, but it should be pointed out that the Nazis also revered this piece and used it for propaganda purposes. The finale is one of the most revolutionary works in all of music, equal in its rebellion to any of the essays of Liszt or Schoenberg. The inclusion of the barbarous Janissary march, with its tingling Turkish cymbals, and the horizontal tonal clusters that form the final moments are totally impolite and impolitic, befitting a movement which elevates an old drinking song to beatific heights. No one before Shostakovich ever imbued an orchestral work with so much anguish as is expressed in the second movement and no one whose senses and sensibilities were still of this earth would have ever conceived in such a primitive manner such a radical progression from individual torment to global union. But try as we might to exclaim this message of peace and harmony, reality interferes. Maestro Barenboim, so large a presence in Berlin that he was chosen to lead the historic “Das Konzert” when the Wall came down (presenting at that time a much more powerful reading of the 7th than we were treated to the other evening) is now being attacked there for, of all things, his Jewish origins. The more things change…

If I had thought beforehand about which works would impress me the most, the first two symphonies would have been fairly far down on the list, but it was indeed these two remnants of the Classical period which this orchestra played extremely well. Both feature the strings and both operate within such clearly defined parameters of form and structure that there is less room for conductorial misconduct. This version of the 1st was exquisite and clean, only a few disturbances in the horn section to keep it from being described as flawless. Well. I asked for raucous and I got it. Barenboim’s conception of the 9th is truly a primitive one and one could almost hear echoes of Le Sacre du Printemps in its primordial savagery. Beethoven was inspired by Haydn’s Creation and wanted this first movement to represent Chaos (the opening tones of the bass in the last movement are also an homage to this great choral work), however too many podium occupants are too timid to really let down the orchestra’s collective hair. The Berliners were freed by Barenboim and although there were some wrong notes, they seemed acceptable within the preternatural framework. Certainly this was a sonic adventure that kept everyone at the edge of their seats, as the second movement continued this atavistic approach. What disappointed was the third movement, not nearly lush enough and unable to project a sufficient beauty to contrast properly with the nerve-jangling ceremonies surrounding it. The finale began dramatically, the revolutionary Beethovenian dissonance strongly pronounced. Barenboim then produced a masterstroke: a very long pause before the introduction of the “ode” theme by celli and double basses. This interval served to underscore the theme and its message, and its performance, complete with exaggerated crescendi, was thrilling. The standing of the assembled singers was dutifully impressive as was the booming bass of Rene Pape. The chorus, expertly prepared by director Duain Wolfe, was powerful, crisp and well balanced. The other soloists were adequate in their bizarre little parts (if you excerpted the music of the quartet of soloists, it would seem to have been written in the 1960’s). After so much discord, the final message of brotherhood was indeed very moving and the amazingly polytonal conclusion left us all breathless. For once I joined in the now obligatory standing ovation.

It was a very ambitious project to present so much great music in so short a period, a trial of endurance for musicians and audience alike. On balance, this was a very good effort. Although perhaps an image much more suited to a review of Mahler’s 9th, the record of the Staatskapelle week resembles an electrocardiograph: there were several lofty peaks, but at least as many corresponding valleys.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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