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Beethoven and Schoenberg (4): Daniel Barenboim (piano, conductor), Staatskapelle Berlin. Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.2.2010 (MB)

Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, op.37

Schoenberg – Variations for Orchestra, op.31

And so, the final concert, a fitting climax, and a greater tribute, I think, to Schoenberg than to Beethoven, which may have been Daniel Barenboim’s intention all along. Not that his account of the third piano concerto was not excellent, perhaps even, dare I say it, great, for it was. Barenboim employed the string forces he had for the fourth and fifth concertos, starting with twelve first violins and shading down to four double basses: a respectable but far from enormous band, with plenty of body but considerably short of, say, Furtwängler’s practice. Where Furtwängler was immediately apparent, and this was perhaps more so than in any of the preceding concertos, was in the opening combination of urgency and foreboding, doubtless in part a product of the tonality – Beethoven’s C minor daemon asserting itself – but not only that. Barenboim’s command of the long line was very much in Furtwängler’s tradition too: the master’s Fernhören (long-range hearing) not aped but truly practised. The large, arguably too large, scale of the first movement ‘exposition’ – the problem is perhaps that Beethoven has yet quite to reconcile his symphonic ambition with concerto form – was exploited for full dramatic effect: no need to apologise. And where Barenboim has never feared to employ broad brushstrokes, here he carefully but not at all fussily shaded both orchestra and piano. The cadenza was painted upon a grand, truly nineteenth-century canvas. If only the chorus of the bronchially challenged could have been consigned to an earlier century too… Then came the vehement coda, passionately felt – and I refer as much to the necessity of my response as to the performance itself.

The Largo was on just as exalted a level: spacious, serene, sublime. Alas, some cretin dropped an object upon the floor, causing a great clattering during Barenboim’s opening phrase. The line endured. Unfortunately, a mobile telephone intervention very close to where I was seated could not but disrupt the aura – at least for me, though not apparently for the musicians. Let us hope that the perpetrator will be shamed for life: a vain hope, no doubt. Persistent coughing was a confounded nuisance too. Still, Barenboim and his orchestra maintained a fine balance – or dialectic – between grandeur and intimacy. In the closing Allegro, Beethoven has his final reckoning with Mozartian ghosts. Well, not quite final, of course, but there was nevertheless a sense that it might be so in this performance. The twenty-fourth piano concerto of his revered predecessor haunted Beethoven – and must surely have inspired Schoenberg too, with its almost-twelve-note first movement theme – but it was difference as much as homage that resounded here, for Haydn would bid fair to win out in the coda, only to be trumped by Beethoven himself. The Staatskapelle Berlin’s woodwind section was on truly wonderful form, evoking Mozart in Salzburg and Vienna, whilst the strings and piano showed why such utopia was no longer an option. Barenboim ensured that the orchestral fugato passage exhibited clarity and meaning, but the same could be said of his pianism throughout. There could now be no doubt that this was the very same musician as that of the sonata cycle of two years ago.

More than half of the second half was afforded to a spoken introduction, with orchestral examples, to Schoenberg’s towering masterpiece, the Op.31 Variations for Orchestra, from Barenboim himself. I cannot imagine that anyone having bothered to listen, at whatever level of musical, let alone Schoenbergian, knowledge, would have failed to be informed and illuminated by what was, quite simply, a brilliant address. Barenboim announced his ambition to act as a museum guide to an unfamiliar exhibition, to address the ear, the ‘most intelligent organ’, and to show how complexity adds to, rather than detracts from, beauty. He demonstrated how the variations might better be understood as transformations (Veränderungen), in a line from Beethoven’s Diabelli set. Inversions, rhythmical and colouristic transformations, the relationship between Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme were all discussed –and illustrated. Most crucially, fundamental pitches were drummed into the audience’s memory. Someone utterly unfamiliar with serial principles would certainly not have been by the end. Likewise, anyone with ears to hear would never again feel the necessity of a tonal crutch. Post-Brahmsian ends are not dependent upon a Brahmsian language. As Schoenberg himself asked, he speaks Chinese, but what is he saying?

This ultimately would have been to little avail without the performance itself, of course, and I am delighted to report that the latter was every bit as distinguished as the previous occasions I have heard Barenboim conduct the work (both with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, for which, see here and here). Schoenberg’s score veritably teemed with material information, overflowing in its affirmation, yet our guide had ensured and continued to ensure that we were well prepared. The Brahmsian sound of the Staatskapelle Berlin anchored us firmly in tradition, and the right tradition at that, thereby permitted us to step out in to a brave new serial world. How bracing the air of another planet is, and yet how it sustains us! Woodwind reminded us of the serenades of both Brahms and Mozart, from whom Schoenberg learned so much. Barenboim ensured that the work had its due as a colouristic – harps and mandolin, violin and piccolo – masterpiece as well as a structural one: much more impressively than the younger Boulez did, I must admit, but then Boulez found it difficult to hide his distaste for the shadow of Brahms. And yet, the hyper-expressivity Barenboim revealed in the score has a counterpart in Boulez’s own early masterworks; there is common ground with, perhaps even influence upon, Le marteau sans maître. Or so it sounded here. Barenboim is perhaps uniquely placed, both biographically and aesthetically to offer such insights, and he did not squander his opportunity. Moreover, his revelling in Schoenberg’s rhythmic transformations surely gave the lie once and for all to the stupid accusation one still sometimes hears that the Second Viennese School neglected rhythm in its explorations. Indeed, it was a sense of post-Lisztian perpetual transformation that was the hallmark both of talk and performance. For the Variations emerged as constructivist, to be sure, but also searingly dramatic, Verklärte Nacht and Pelleas recalled, and Moses und Aron foretold. The triumph of the great BACH statement in the finale registered almost chorale-like, as if Mahler had somehow conquered his doubts. This performance was gripping, exciting, and profoundly satisfying.

But there was, briefly, more. Struggling, now without a microphone, to make himself heard above a noisy audience minority, Barenboim told of Milan Kundera’s recounting that Schoenberg had believed that, in fifty years time, his music would be whistled as if it were Johann Strauss. Kundera thought that Schoenberg overestimated himself; Barenboim thought that Schoenberg overestimated the future. So much the worse for Kundera, who perhaps overestimated himself, and so much the better for Barenboim. And, after the latter’s introduction, every audience member would at least have been able to sing the theme. Yet Barenboim defied my expectation that we might hear more Schoenberg, or even Webern, and gave a magnificent, edge-of-seat rendition of the Waltz King’s Unter Donner und Blitz polka. The orchestra had never sounded better – except, perhaps, in the Schoenberg.


Mark Berry



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