Pollini and Barenboim’s Fine Concert at Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin

06/10/2017

Widmann, Schumann, and Debussy: Maurizio Pollini (piano), Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 4.10.2017. (MB)

Widmann – Zweites Labyrinth

Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor, op.54

Debussy – Images

 Following the mixed fortunes of the opening night’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (review), the second night at the reopened Staatsoper Unter den Linden showed, in addition to unalloyed musical excellence, that the theatre can work once again, indeed better than ever, as a fine concert venue too. Daniel Barenboim has been conducting quite a bit of Jörg Widmann’s music recently, not least at the newly opened Pierre Boulez Saal, at which Widmann himself has appeared regularly too. This concert opened with his 2006 Zweites Labyrinth, premiered by the SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg (since, unforgivably, merged) under Hans Zender. It followed his Labyrinth for forty-eight strings from the previous year, albeit with very different forces: five instrumental groups, namely (1) two pianos, two harps, Hungarian and Ukrainian cimbaloms, zither, and guitárron; (2) bass clarinet, two contrabass clarinets, two bassoons, and two contrabassons; (3) eight horns; (4) four piccolos; (5) fourteen first violins and twelve second violins. It would be a spatial challenge for the most modern of halls – say, the Boulezian salle modulable around the corner. What struck me most clearly, as well as the excellence of the performance, was, in a tribute to the Staatsoper’s acoustic, how clearly and meaningfully the work sounded, without any unusual spatial arrangement. All instruments were simply on the stage, as one would have expected.

The performance – and work – opened forbiddingly. Forbidding, that is, in dramatic terms, rather than denoting anything especially ‘difficult’. The harsh strength – walls of the labyrinth? – of the opening gave way to aural ricocheting across the various instrumental groups, as if the orchestra were a giant keyboard, across which giant, timbrally transforming glissandi were played. (In programming retrospect, Debussy seemed to have been echoed.) The skill with which such quicksilver threads were sewn in performance proved mesmerising in itself. What a joy it was to hear the Staatskapelle Berlin in such music, not least as different instruments seemed almost to transform before our ears into each other, Widmann and the players displaying equal mastery of extended techniques. Barenboim and his musicians brought a keen sense of drama, almost of wordless opera to proceedings: not at all inappropriate for Widmann in general, nor for a concert in the Lindenoper.

Maurizio Pollini joined the orchestra for Schumann’s Piano Concerto, picking up the thread, as it were, from the previous evening. Seated where I was, in the third row of the stalls, just slightly to the left of the centre, I could hardly have had a better view of the pianist. The combination of acoustic – clear and warm – and visual proximity meant, if this makes any sense, that I could hear precisely what I saw, and vice versa. Music so well known to many in the audience, still more so to Pollini, seemed to be recomposed on the spot, before my eyes and ears, an equal or at least appropriate weight accorded to the horizontal and vertical, as if leading to Brahms or indeed to Schoenberg. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Pollini recorded the Schumann and Schoenberg concertos together with Claudio Abbado. The richness of string tone was truly a wonder in itself, especially when experienced with such physicality. Moreover, both Barenboim and Pollini brought a command of line to all three movements such as to hold absolute attention throughout. There was chamber music intimacy too, married to an undeniable sense of playing upon oscillation between tonic minor and major, which put me in mind of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op.73, only writ large(r). Schumann’s Beethovenian inheritance seemed especially apparent in the first movement: not just its scale, but its character too. The integrity, humanistic as much as ‘merely’ musical, of the cadenza spoke volumes: once again, Schoenberg beckoned.

The sense of derivation from a single phrase, even a single note, was perhaps still stronger still in the slow movement. I thought of something Webern writes, in The Path to the New Music: ‘To develop everything … from one principal idea! That is the strongest unity … But in what form? That is where art comes in!’ The music seemed once again to achieve an ideal balance between chamber and orchestral tendencies: not quite Mozartian, for this is not Mozart, but recognisably in his line. I was especially struck by the way particular string sections sounded as one. The transition to the finale was emotionally as well as technically spot on, the swing from the tragic to the exultant effected within a single breath, without the slightest sense of abruptness. That was surely a brevity that would have impressed, perhaps put to shame, even Webern! And indeed, it was a quality of constant transformation, not entirely unlike the music of Liszt, that characterised the performance of the finale. Line was not sacrificed, far from it, but as in the very different work by Widmann, it proved to be a dramatic line.

The second half was devoted to Debussy’s Images, a work – and of course, composer – closely associated with one of Barenboim’s greatest musical collaborators, Pierre Boulez, Honorary Conductor of this orchestra. The opening of ‘Gigues’ sounded duly mysterious, combining haze and precision; it was as if we hearing the solo lines through an aural gauze of varying intensity. Not that the performance lacked rhythmic definition, nor indeed a strength, when required, that seemed almost to echo La Mer. There was mystery too, albeit a different mystery, to the opening of ‘Rondes de printemps’: germinative and generative, spiritual and material. The idea of ‘smudged dialectics’ may be a little too ‘Impressionist’ for some, but it is what came to me listening anyway. I loved the way in which instrumental colours and harmonies – are they actually two sides of the same coin or different ‘parameters’? – shifted into each other at times, suggesting a different variety of Klangfarbenmelodie from that generally associated with the term. Barenboim’s command of line, so different from that in Widmann and Schumann, and yet equally important, again proved crucial to the dramatic progress of the piece.

A sardonic quality marked the first panel of ‘Ibéria’, ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’: not unlike Stravinsky, yet not quite like him either. The players were clearly enjoying themselves; that one could see as well as hear. Once again, a Tarnhelm-like dissolution of boundaries between different varieties of colour was splendidly apparent. A sultry penumbra of timbre seemed to surround the pitches of ‘Les parfums de la nuit’. Harmonies shifted between ambiguity and more definite progression, preparing the way for a performance of ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’ that was surely warmer, more southern, than Boulez’s, perhaps more sardonic too, not least in Soldier’s Tale-like fiddling (whether from the excellent solo playing of Jiyoon Lee or from the entire section). It made for a fine conclusion to a fine concert indeed.

Mark Berry

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