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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Wagner, Schoenberg, and Beethoven: Daniel Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, 11 May 2005 (BJ)

No less eloquent in words than he is through music, Daniel Barenboim has spoken vividly on more than one occasion about the relationship between sound and silence. His conception of how one must emerge from the other was clearly embodied at the start of the program when he brought the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Philadelphia in the course of what is presumably his last tour as its music director.

The opening work was the prelude to Parsifal, which showed us the orchestra in superb fettle. No one section stands out with especial impact from the rest, and this is in itself a measure of how the group has grown in refinement since Barenboim took over its leadership a decade and a half ago. His predecessor, Georg Solti, was a charismatic performer who galvanized the CSO to new peaks of virtuosity, and enhanced its international reputation with a first-ever European tour in 1971 and many subsequent appearances and recordings of note. But in his last years nuance came increasingly to be neglected in favor of sheer power, to the point where the orchestra seemed to command only two dynamic levels: fortissimo and mezzo-forte; in Chicago performances under Solti that I heard around 1990 there was nothing between those dynamic levels, and certainly nothing below.

Barenboim has changed all that. Instead of just two dynamics, there is now a seemingly inexhaustible range from the grandest fff to the tiniest ppp, and with it there is a greatly expanded and subtly responsive sensitivity to every shade of artistic expression including the most delicate. The brass, which formerly seemed to be the only section in the orchestra that anyone talked about, now takes its place in the ensemble sound as an equal partner–it has lost none of its strength and brilliance, even after the retirement of Adolph Herseth, who for half a century bestrode the far from narrow world of orchestral principal trumpeters like a colossus. The woodwinds, despite recently losing the services of the gifted young Brazilian oboist Alex Klein to one of those hand malfunctions sadly familiar to those who have followed the careers of pianists Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, are a beautifully integrated and individually polished body of musicians. The string choir, without calling undue attention to itself, is magnificently unanimous and resonant, and the percussionists do brilliantly everything that is demanded of them. Much, indeed, was demanded in the first half of the program, which concluded with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra.

During this first half, I cannot help feeling, the performances – visionary and exalted in the Wagner, fluid and iridescent in the Schoenberg – were better than the music. With regard to Wagner’s Parsifal, with its melange of portentous religiosity with moments of Schmutzigkeit, I confess to a warm sympathy for Spike Hughes, who was taken by his mother to a performance of the work in his teens, and who reported in his autobiography: “I fell asleep several times during the performance of this revolting work, which lasts twice as long as Holy Week and Lent put together.”

Schoenberg, and the Second Viennese School in general, have meanwhile stood at the heart of Barenboim’s 20th-century programming, alongside his commitment to Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter above all other composers of our own time. These predilections reflect a predominantly intellectual taste in contemporary music. Though preferable to certain other conductors’ weakness for cheap accessibility in their programming choices, it is, I think, a one-sided taste, which has deprived Barenboim’s audiences of much that is rewarding in the music of the last hundred years. Still, his dedication has been honorably unswerving, and it will have left, in Chicago, a public perhaps better attuned than most to music as a living art, and, in its orchestra, an ensemble superbly capable of serving that art.

As to the second half of this magnificent concert, I have only one cavil to express about the performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and that concerns Barenboim’s omission of several important repeats. For the rest, this was music-making of an utterly thrilling nature. Tempos, especially in the scherzo, were on the brisk side, but never excessively so, and there was about the whole thing a sense of the kind of risk-taking–of the embrace of danger–that we encounter too rarely in performances of the classical repertoire, but that is surely central to any adequate representation of the spirit of Beethoven.

In the relatively modest sphere of the critical profession, I have always enjoyed going out on a limb. Back in 1970, when Barenboim, then a stripling of 28, conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the first time, I ventured the opinion that, in 50 years' time, we would be talking about Barenboim in the kind of terms formerly reserved for Weingartner, Nikisch, and Furtwängler. As long ago as 1980, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the late Stanley Sadie, having alluded to earlier suggestions that Barenboim's music-making was too romantic in its flexibility, observed: "It became clear that this readiness of response disclosed an urgent, percipient and thoughtful musicianship, which as it matured acquired a better sense of perspective; the frequent comparisons with Furtwängler (whom Barenboim has long admired) began to seem less extravagant."

By the evidence not just of that statement, but of the performances we were privileged to hear on this occasion, he seems to have beaten my speculative deadline by a handy margin. An ovation of a spontaneous enthusiasm rarely exhibited in staid old Philadelphia was rewarded with a quicksilver encore in the shape of the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music. After the music came the words. In an on-stage conversation, the Kimmel Center’s programming director, Mervon Mehta, managed as he always does to avoid the trivialization that bedevils too many interviews. He drew from Barenboim a discourse of combined warmth, humor, modesty, and passion for human brotherhood and artistic integrity that left the audience scarcely less moved and exhilarated than it had been by the concert itself.

Bernard Jacobson

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