Barenboim’s Mozart and Bruckner Disappoint

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Bruckner:  Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim (conductor and soloist), Royal Festival Hall, London, 16.4.2012 (GD)

Mozart: Piano Concerto in C minor K 491, No.24.
Bruckner: Symphony No 7 in E major.

Barenboim deployed a large string section for K 491. He directed from the piano, as Mozart would have done, but as this performance developed I was left wondering if it in fact bore much resemblance to Mozart’s style and the idiom of this great concerto with its Sturm und Drang tones. The C minor opening ritornello here had a kind of lumbering gait, and although Barenboim correctly used antiphonal first and second violins, there was a distinct lack of clarity. The furious C minor overlapping dissonant string figurations punctuated by trumpets and timpani didn’t really sound, and the brass, trumpets and horns failed to cut through the string textures as they should. The timpanist looked as if he was using hard sticks for a more cutting, arresting tone, but this did not register. Also Barenboim didn’t seem to be able to establish a consistent or sustained tempo. Mozart’s tempo marking is simply Allegro ( fast ) but I didn’t hear much in the way of movement or direction, and there was no underlying sense of drama which this, of all Mozart concerto movements, should strongly register. The whole weighty, thick textured orchestral sound was simply alien to Mozart’s far more urgent and sharply accented invention. When Barenboim did enter he didn’t seem to be in accord with the orchestra. Throughout the movement he played more as a soloist with a different agenda than that established in the opening ritornello. In the complex and extended development section which encompasses a constellation of tonalities, some as remote from each other as E flat and F minor, I had no sense of Barenboim in dialogue with the orchestra, or of the solo part elaborately interweaving in and out of Mozart’s superb tonal juxtapositions and counterpoint. Mozart, as was usual in his times, did not write out a cadenza. just a blank space left for solo extempore. In this concerto Mozart, unlike in his other concertos, does not indicate a concluding cadenza flourish. Instead the orchestra re enters with a connecting passage of two bars which is not to be found anywhere else in the movement, but tonight I didn’t hear this clearly. As one man mentioned to me in the interval, the re-entry of the piano with orchestra seemed to be blurred or ill-timed. Barenboim’s over long cadenza (I assume it was Barenboim’s) sounded more like a Lisztian transcription than anything to do with Mozart.

The E flat major Larghetto, in five-part rondo form, was taken at a very leisurely pace – fFar too leisurely for the music to flow gracefully as it should. The beautiful woodwind concertante sequences were stylishly played, but I had little sense of these sequences cohering with the main flow of the movement; they seemed to stand out when, in fact, they should complement the rest of the orchestra in the forward moving flow of the movement. And the movement’s counterposing tonal register between C minor and A flat major did not contrast in the way it should. It seems strange that Barenboim should take the finale Allegretto at a real allegro tempo whilst ignoring the Allegro marking of the first movement. Together with the K 453 Piano Concerto this is the only one to deploy a finale in the variation form. This all went quite well with faster tempi adding a degree of urgency; but again I missed the sharper texture in the trumpets, horns and drums. The strings did not always articulate their rapid figurations as clealy as they should and I also missed any sense of dialogue between piano and orchestra In the concerto’s final variation in 6/8 time I heard little of what Tovey described as the ‘summing up of the works pathos’.

Barenboim conducted a rather old fashioned Bruckner Seven. The general orchestral sound , especially in the strings, was opulent, even thick textured, and Barenboim encouraged plenty of string vibrato. There was a considerable level of rubato with the more dramatic music tending to be faster than the lyrical, introspective sections. Bruckner makes meticulous score markings in matters of bar length – the juxtaposition of two bar and four bar phrases, for example. In these matters the composer seems to have had a predilection for stressing the normality of phrase length. But apart from occasional shifts in time registers, in contrast to the initial 2/2 of the E major First Movement, Bruckner does not indicate any radical tempi or gear changes within a movement. Tonight, by the time we reached the three bar strides leading to the lyrical E major in the cellos and horns, Barenboim had slowed down considerably. He then speeded up for the second subject in B major on oboes and clarinets above sustaining horns and trumpets. This third subject, after a dramatic crescendo and pause in the dominant minor, had plenty of rhythmic thrust, but by the time we reached the gloriously sonorous theme on he cellos, which recalls ‘Parsifal’ and the mysteries of the Grail, Barenboim had made a considerable allargando. Here Barenboim’s phrasing was very expressive with full range vibrato, although Bruckner indicates no expressivo here nor asks for any slowing down. In the following C minor tutti eruption, where the first theme is turned upside-down and pounded out in a series of closely worked repetitions, the brass were dominant, rather obscuring the rest of the orchestra. All the principal themes return in the recapitulation.with the movement’s diverse key registers, from B major, B minor, to G major and A major, resolving the conflict between B major and minor, and returning to the tonic for a resoundingly resplendent, pedal held, coda, with its wonderfully confident and noble return to the tonic E major.

Although Barenboim made some dramatic points and evinced some sonorous, if for my taste, too thickly textured sounds, I felt the movement was compromised by too many rather mannered tempo changes. Past conductors like Furtwängler and Abendroth, coming from an older Wagnerian conducting tradition, could make such tempo fluctuations cohere into an organic unity. But I didn’t notice much of this tonight. I timed the first movement at nearly 23 minutes. It should be remembered that Bruckner marked this movement ‘Allegro moderato. It is notable that the two earliest recordings of this symphony; those by Horenstein (Berlin 1928), and an even earlier version, also from Berlin in 1924, under Oscar Fried, take 17 29 ( Horenstein), and (17 01) Fried. In both these versions, the movement, taken at a proper ‘Allegro moderato’, sounds absolutely right.

The great Adagio in C sharp minor is marked ‘Sehr feierlich und sehr langsam’ (very solemn and very slow) and should be taken at a slow pace, but one that never drags. To many conductors take Bruckner’s music too slowly by mistakenly attending to the note values and thereby neglecting the underlying metre of harmonic progression. Although Barenboim didn’t take it as slowly as some (slow motion) conductors, I would have welcomed more line, more flow, especially in the middle section of the movement, initiated by the beautiful violin melody in F sharp major, in 3/4 time, and a change of tempo to ‘moderato’. The two pairs of Wagner tubas (supported by bass tuba) sounded well, as did the full string phrase, the same motive as in the ‘Non confundar in aeternum’ from the Te Deum. In the above mentioned ‘moderato’ with the sublime F sharp major violin melody, Barenboim actually slowed down, missing the forward flow of the section. I recently heard a rare Toscanini recording of this symphony from a public performance in New York, with the New York Philharmonic in 1935, and although the sound was fairly restricted, this section, and indeed the whole movement, flowed and sang out, in a way I have never heard before. The great C major climax heralded by a return to the first theme in the tonic , embroidered by rising semiquavers in the violins, was impressive – but impressive more in the sense of impressive orchestral dynamics not really coming from within, but imposed from without. Barenboim included the additional cymbal clash and timpani rolls in the climax, initiated by conductor Artur Nikisch, who conducted the first performance. Yet there is no evidence that Bruckner wanted this percussion addition; it is certainly not in Bruckner’s autograph score. Some have argued that Bruckner approved Nikisch’s emendation, but Bruckner, as we know, was extremely malleable and would agree to virtually anything if it meant his music would be performed. If he did intend the percussive additions surely he would have included them in his autograph score? I have always thought that it sounds a tad meretricious, added on, even when deployed by a conductor like Klemperer. This is especially the case after hearing how effective the passage sounds without cymbal clashes etc, from such experienced and respected Bruckner conductors as Bruno Walter, Hans Rosbaud, Gunter Wand and Harnoncourt. The concluding Wagner’ threnody in the lower brass, the ‘Non confunar’ theme’ initiating the return of the tonic C sharp of the movement’s opening, and the coda, now in the consoling major, all sounded quite well.

The Scherzo (which is really no joke) marks a contrasted tonal register of A minor (hitherto almost completely avoided). Barenboim gave a relatively straightforward reading. But right from the opening pp 3/4 rhythm in the strings I missed that sense of agitated drama, so well understood by conductors like Furtwängler and Kabasta. The strongly rhythmic theme on trumpets, with a falling clarinet, all heard within the space of eight bars and becoming the basic material for the whole movement, were clearly intoned tonight. The trio marked ‘etwas langsamer (Rather slower) was just that. Again I would have preferred less string vibrato and less rich textures.

The finale is Bruckner’s most economically unified: cardinal tonal registers from the earlier movements such as; E major, A flat major, and minor , and C major form the basis of the movement’s harmonic, thematic material, but undergo subtle transformations, and modulations. Apart from again slowing down for second subject chorale-like melody in the tonal register of E for strings, Barenboim conducted in a fairly strraight-forward fashion. The tutti brass chorale themes, foregrounding the block-like structure of the movement, were well contoured, although I would have preferred more movement (Bewegt). Also the massive weight of the brass tended to obscure Bruckner’ elaborately formed accompanying counterpoint in strings and woodwind. At the last enunciation of tutti brass before the coda Barenboim held on to a very long pause before the re-statement the chorale string theme,though I am not really sure whether the length of this pause heightened, or diminished the sense of contrast The fantastically contrasted coda, between the themes of the first and last movements blazed away, with brass somewhat over dominant, to the symphony’s triumphant close.

Geoff Diggines