Barenboim’s Truly Outstanding Account of La Mer

12/04/2017

Berlin Festtage (4) – Takemitsu, Beethoven, Debussy, and Berg: Anne Sophie-Mutter (violin), Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 11.4.2017. (MB)

Takemitsu – Nostalghia: In Memory of Andrei Tarkovsky, for violin and string orchestra

Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major, op,61

Debussy – La Mer

Berg – Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6

A concert very much of two halves, but which half would be which? Sad to say, it was the longer ‘half’, with Anne-Sophie Mutter, which proved frustrating (although not, it would seem, to an often poorly behaved audience: telephones, quadrophonic coughing, chattering, dropping things, etc., etc.) As it was, a truly outstanding performance of La Mer – was it perhaps the best I have heard? – and an excellent account of Berg’s Op.6 Pieces had me wishing that perhaps the Beethoven Violin Concerto had been omitted from a strangely programmed concert.

Takemitsu’s Nostalghia opened the concert, and fared considerably better than the Beethoven. The composer’s move ever closer towards (more or less) conventional tonality was to be heard here, yet not entirely unalloyed: post-Messiaen the harmonies might have been, but there were hints of Berg too. Moreover, Mutter’s playing, consciously or otherwise, seemed designed to pick up the intervallic aspects of Takemitsu’s construction, even constructivism, and their implications. The contrast between her tone – for once, ‘glamorous’ does seem the mot juste – and that of the small band of orchestral strings was telling rather than distracting. She and Daniel Barenboim shaped the work’s contours well; attention to detail was equally impressive. The ‘tender and elegiac mood’ of which Takemitsu spoke was evoked, but not at the expense of a ‘merely’ atmospheric account, no more welcome here than in Debussy.

That distinction of string tone was also present in the Beethoven Concerto, but it began to take on the characteristic of mannerism, especially when Mutter’s playing with intonation – I say ‘playing with’, since it seemed deliberate – began to grate. Perhaps more disturbing were her sometimes extreme rubato and tempo variation. Barenboim is renowned as a master in post-Furtwänglerian Beethoven, which we might have had chance to hear in another performance; here, too much sounded like a bad parody of Mengelberg. The first movement in particular was listless, at times seeming interminable, even when the tempo was far from ‘objectively’ slow. The magnificence of the moment of orchestral return showed us what we were missing. Interestingly, somewhat perplexingly, Mutter’s account of the cadenza (Kreisler’s, I think) was far stronger in direction, and indeed in expressive range too. Applause at the close of the movement was as unwelcome as it was predictable, although it was probably preferable to another extended bout of bronchial display. The slow movement was better: broad, with undeniable intimacy for much of its course. Characterful solo voices from the Staatskapelle Berlin – the bassoon in particular caught my ear – were a delight. A reverie, with sterner moments, then, whose spell was broken by a vigorous, even dashing account of the finale. If only the first movement had borrowed a little of that vigour! Now the orchestra really played out and Barenboim seemed far more in control.

Once past the bizarrely bronchial sunrise, impressively handled so far as one could tell, Barenboim’s La Mer achieved perhaps the most truly symphonic stature I have heard. It is certainly not the only way to perform this work, but it was mightily impressive. The great sweep of the first movement, and indeed beyond, was enhanced by equally fine attention to detail. The climax rightly grew out of and yet also transformed what had gone before. There was no lingering, rendering its impact all the greater. ‘Jeux de vagues’ emerged as a glittering orchestral scherzo, with all the dynamism of (if a different dynamism from) a scherzo by Mahler or Brahms. Cellos drove, or so it seemed, the harmony as well as the rhythm. The ‘Dialague du vent et de la mer’ opened as ominously as any symphonic finale (that to Berg’s Pieces included, if we may include them). Its dark malevolence looked back to Parsifal but forward too. During the course of a struggle that was avowedly musical rather than pictorial, quintessentially Debussyan magic and mystery sounded reborn.

Sonic mystery of a different kind enabled the very components of Western music to emerge in the opening of Berg’s ‘Präludium’: an exaggeration, perhaps, but there was a real sense, even, in theological terms, a real presence, of the instantiation of harmony, melody, rhythm in that creation. (I often think of this opening as a counterpart to Haydn’s ‘Representation of Chaos’. Here it stood, or so it seemed, midway between Haydn and Varèse.) The strangeness of this music remained undimmed; it was no orchestral showpiece that we heard. ‘Reigen’ danced as it must, but it was the evolution of that dance and its subsequent development that registered especially strongly. Fragments of old Vienna were remembered, misremembered, invented; they filed past us in a ballroom that disintegrated before our ears. Line here proved as crucial as in La Mer, or indeed as in Barenboim’s Wagner. A similar thing might be said of the ‘Marsch’, save for its necessary dissimilarity and contrast. The insanity and downright barbarism of the huge orchestra and its music was celebrated, then distilled and dissolved, reinstating the unspoken presence of Mahler, even prior to the hammer blows. Berg claimed that Mahler’s modernity over Wagner was in part a matter of saying, with Nietzsche, yes rather than no. Here, Berg seemed to say yes, no, maybe, all manner of things. If there was not quite the clarity that Pierre Boulez, with no sacrifice to its emotional range, used to bring to performances of this music, Barenboim and his orchestra offered interesting new perspectives of their own. This is music we hear far too infrequently; there really is no excuse.

Mark Berry

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