Exceptional Mozart from Barenboim and the VPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 11.4.2014 (MB)

Symphony no.39 in E-flat major, KV 543
Symphony no.40 in G minor, KV 550
Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551

There is a little irony in that I have now twice been asked to write an essay to accompany this programme for the Salzburg Festival – last year for the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle, this year for Concentus musicus Wien and Nikolaus Harnoncourt – yet not for this, with a conductor far more to my liking in Mozart. No matter; I was not at the Philharmonie to read the programme notes. Indeed, since the death of Sir Colin Davis, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti are probably the only conductors about whom I feel great enthusiasm in this repertoire (which is not to say that I should not happily hear others and, with a little good fortune, be pleasantly surprised by them). Thomas Zehetmair, on the strength of a recent Mozart 39th, might be another, but since I have only heard him conduct Mozart once, it is perhaps a little early to say.

Anyway, in a relentlessly demanding programme – nowhere to hide – Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic shone. The first two symphonies received excellent performances; the Jupiter received something greater still. The introduction to the first movement of no.39 could not have been more promising: warm, expansive, grand, the E-flat major tonality immediately suggestive of the Overture to Die Zauberflöte. String sound ( was glorious, and would remain so. More important still, there was an overriding sense both of potentiality and goal-direction. If the exposition opened in muscular fashion, the second subject yielded as it should: classically ‘feminine’ in the time-honoured, if hardly feminist, typology. The concision of the movement as a whole was striking, having veritably burst forth from the introduction. (Barenboim sometimes took repeats, sometimes not; here he did not.) This was a reading that looked forward to Beethoven, with all the strengths that implies, but if I were to register a cavil, it would be that it might have smiled a little more, as it did for, say, Karl Böhm or Davis. The slow movement exhibited wonderful contrasts, not least in terms of dynamic responsiveness, within a greater unity. Contrapuntal clarity could not be faulted; moreover, it was a joy as well as an education to hear sections respond to each other. Above all, Barenboim’s ability to hear – and to convey – the movement as if in a single breath was evident. The minuet was grand and gracious: nicely pointed, without exaggeration. This was not a formulaic case of one-size-fits-all, for it was taken considerably faster than would be the case in the minuets of the succeeding two symphonies. The trio relaxed slightly, the sonorous woodwinds a delight, though again, perhaps, that ‘smiling’ which Messiaen – of all people! – identified as a characteristic of Mozart’s music might have been more in evidence. If the finale was fast, indeed Haydn-fast, as it were, it was in no danger of being garbled. Due weight was imparted to a movement as full of character as Don Giovanni. It was over far too quickly.

The first movement of the G minor Symphony was urgent without forsaking grace. Barenboim opted for clarinets, whose beguiling presence was most welcome. In this movement, he took the exposition repeat, but the music did not sound the same; indeed, it developed throughout. The development section proper opened with disorientation that was yet not overplayed; it came from somewhere, and led to somewhere. Again, counterpoint was wondrously clear. The recapitulation’s second subject, now of course in G minor, signalled tragedy unalloyed. Clarity and warmth were striking in the slow movement, similarly direction and backbone. This was beautiful music, to be sure, but it was beautiful symphonic music. Barenboim ensured that the minuet was duly severe, without eclipse of its roots in courtly dance. Beethoven hovered in the (near) future, but did not overwhelm. The Vienna players offered a trio that sounded as if it were the easiest thing in the world, which it certainly is not; woodwind again were outstanding. The finale was taken quickly, but not at the expense of harmony. Motivic working was as tightly woven and as powerfully projected as it would – or should – have been in Beethoven or Brahms. The vehemence of the recapitulation was suggestive, rightly so, of operatic tragedy. It thrilled on account of, not despite, its beauty.

Finally came the Jupiter, its first movement opening with C major pomp, but not pomposity. There was due contrast, and generatively so, in the subsidiary first subject theme, as well as the second subject proper: strings brilliant in the best sense, thereafter caressing. The repeat was not taken, but the movement developed throughout, almost to the extent that one did not notice the advent of the nominal ‘development’ section. Progress was founded upon harmonic rhythm, unfailingly dramatic. The same could be said of the slow movement, which breathed the air of the stage, of the Da Ponte operas in particular. This might have been the answer to ‘what happened next for the Countess?’ For, let there be no doubt, this was human tragedy that was heard and felt here. Form was no straitjacket, but dynamically expressive. Similarities and differences with Beethoven were equally apparent. This went deeper than either of the previous slow movements, much deeper. The minuet sounded, quite simply, as I hear it in my head. Barenboim’s tempo was perfectly chosen; light and shade balanced each other with similar perfection. Sturdy rhythms and gracious release characterised the trio too. And that woodwind section had to be heard there to be believed. The finale was again fast, but not too fast. There was release, yes, but originating in harmony and formal dynamism, not applied ‘excitement’. The bass line and its implications were as crucial as in a performance by Klemperer. Just to underline the transfer of weight towards the finale, Barenboim took both repeats; yet again, these were no mere repetitions, development being again a matter for the whole movement. Alas, I could not quite reconcile myself to the extremity of Barenboim’s pulling back to announce the coda, which seemed to rob the symphony somewhat of its necessary triumph. However, with a performance that was otherwise so outstanding, I could live with it. All three symphonies, I might add, where conducted from memory.

Mark Berry

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