Barenboim and the VPO Open the Berlin Festtage with Mozart and Schoenberg

10/04/2017

Berlin Festtage (1) – Mozart and Schoenberg: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 7.4.2017. (MB)

Mozart: Symphony no.35 in D major, KV 385, ‘Haffner’; Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551, ‘Jupiter’

Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony no.1 in E major, op.9

The Berlin State Opera’s Holy Week Festtage seems by now firmly to have established an invented tradition of opening with a concert from the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim. This year we heard three symphonies, one by Mozart and Schoenberg, both Barenboim specialities, with fine results. One might say the same, of course, for Mozart and the VPO, and ought to be able to for Schoenberg too; perhaps we should say that, when the orchestra can be persuaded (after all this time…) to play the music of one of Vienna’s greatest sons, it can bring something very special to it.

The Haffner Symphony received an excellent performance indeed. A pleasingly large (by today’s standards) orchestra, strings 12:10:8:6:5, presented something that was no mere showpiece, the first movement’s swagger emerging from the score, above all founded upon its harmony – just as if it were Beethoven. The unanimity of ensemble was just as impressive as its warmth. This was pretty much perfect. And so, it was impossible not to note a slight lapse of ensemble at the beginning of the slow movement. (Yes, I am saying ‘slow movement’ in order to wind the right people up…) At any rate, recovery was swift; thereafter, a wealth of variegation proved crucial to such cultivated playing. The Vienna woodwind might almost have been Karl Böhm’s. Above all, the music ‘spoke’, as if it were an aria without words. Barenboim’s tempo modifications were subtle yet telling. The minuet stood on the cusp of one- and three-to-a-bar (although Barenboim, as, perhaps more surprisingly, in the Jupiter, generally conducted it in one). Once again, melody, harmony, and rhythm were in near-perfect equipoise. A lovely, teasing trio, especially in the lead-ins, was over, alas, before we knew it. Like its predecessors, the finale benefited from a tempo that sounded just ‘right’. Crucially, it had the character of a finale. The timpanist’s playing is surely deserving of special mention here; so of course is that of the Vienna strings. This is far more complex music than many take it for; here it sounded so, without losing its apparent, beguiling simplicity. A thrilling narrative had me smile – and hold my breath.

Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony followed. I was immediately struck by the chamber music sound, or Klang: not so much a matter of scale, which is obvious, but of an ensemble of chamber musicians, somewhat like that for an outgrown Schubert Octet or indeed Mozart Divertimento – which is certainly one way in which we might consider what Schoenberg is doing here. The cultivation of the strings’ playing was again quite remarkable. There were no balance issues, either. Barenboim proved especially skilled at eliciting and communicating the Lisztian, transformative element to Schoenberg’s writing, sounding more Wagnerian as time went on: not just in melodic terms but, more intriguingly still, with respect to rhythm and metre too. Schoenberg proved, quite rightly, just as fecund as Mozart; developing variation has many more fathers than Brahms. Viennese sweetness underlay the performance, but it never became cloying; indeed, kinship with Schoenberg’s string quartet writing, apparent throughout, seemed to help ensure a counterbalance.

After the interval came the Jupiter Symphony. If it did not receive quite so committed a performance, at least to my ears, the VPO occasionally sounding somewhat on (high class) autopilot, there was still much to enjoy. Certainly the contrast and connectedness between the two thematic groups in the first movement registered clearly and meaningfully. So too did the dynamic functions of development and recapitulation. The slow movement was played beautifully, not entirely untroubled, but perhaps earlier on a little more untroubled than it might have been. When greater, well-nigh Beethovenian tension was heard, the transformation was noteworthy. I loved the darkness of some of the Minuet’s Trio, and the way the reprise of the Minuet seemed to take that in, its chromaticism absorbing lessons learned. The finale again very much had a finale’s character, although in its own particular way. There was no doubting the weight of the performance, not that that precluded chiaroscuro, nor the sense of theatre, almost as if this were the final number to an act of a fourth Da Ponte opera. The symphonic argument nevertheless remained paramount – at least until a curious moment. Quite why Barenboim adopted so rhetorical a ritardando before the coda I am not sure; it did not seem at all in keeping with what we had heard previously. A little girl sitting on stage took this as a cue to applaud loudly (if the harmony did not suggest a close, then she was creditably aware that something had happened!) and all tension was lost.

Mark Berry

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