A Revelatory Opening to Barenboim’s Bruckner Cycle

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Bruckner: Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor and piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 19.1.2017. (BH)

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin perform Bruckner's First Symphony at Carnegie Hall (Photo: Steve J. Sherman)
Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin perform Bruckner’s First Symphony at Carnegie Hall (c) Steve J. Sherman

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.27 in B-flat major K.595
Bruckner: Symphony No.1 in C minor (Linz version; 1865-1866; rev. 1877, 1884, and 1889)

Before embarking on Carnegie Hall’s first-ever Anton Bruckner cycle — all of his nine symphonies presented in chronological order (and sorry, fans of the rarely-performed Nos.0 and 00) — I pondered the conventional wisdom that the first three are throwaways, of historical interest but not much else. In the first of nine concerts with the Staatskapelle Berlin, conductor Daniel Barenboim shattered that idea with an urgent, even explosive reading of the composer’s First Symphony (in the Linz edition).

It’s tempting to go movement-by-movement, but that would slightly anaesthetize reporting on the overall conception, in which Barenboim exulted in Bruckner’s opening symphonic volley, showing the composer’s imagination, and anticipating his even greater achievements to come. Hearing this finely detailed First, I recalled the comments of a friend years ago after a bang-up reading of the opening symphony of Mahler, imagining the composer greeting listeners with, “Hi, here’s my card. Call me.”

The Staatskapelle’s timpanist, Dominic Oelze, deserves special mention, among many fine moments the orchestra summoned up. His instrumental array lifted up on risers, Oelze was the anchor of the ensemble’s propulsive reading, with entertaining views of his precision volleys. All the back rows of musicians were raised slightly, which may have boosted the sound, and the impressive eight double basses were dead-center, along the back wall.

Barenboim has been rumored to be especially passionate about Bruckner’s First, and if so, he showed it—kick-starting the next week-and-a-half with a controlled, yet sometimes shocking thrust that took nothing for granted. The ensemble delivered with vehemence and surprising accuracy, with special nods to the trombones, and the orchestra’s horn section. Massive, riveting string tuttis might be followed by a single flute, shyly raising its hand for recognition. The conception was so involving that any small quirks in phrasing or intonation evaporated in the memory.

It was in one of the quieter moments in the second movement Adagio that I heard faint sounds of a police siren outside the generally sound-tight hall. For those not aware, a few blocks away, a massive protest was underway against the incoming leader of the free world. That proved the sole distraction during much of this empowering, uplifting evening.

“Perfectly pleasant” would be the phrase for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27. As soloist and conductor, Barenboim positioned the instrument with the keyboard facing the audience, and gave a reading long on rhythmic elasticity. His tempi occasionally seemed to nudge the ensemble or conversely, encourage it to catch up. There were a handful of balance issues: the instrument was on the bright side (I didn’t mind, but one friend didn’t care for it), and in the orchestral introduction, the brass and winds were more prominent than they might have been. As with many concerts, describing many gray areas between “transcendent” and “awful” can be challenging. This was fine.

But all that was really beside the point, a prelude to what would arrive after intermission, when Barenboim pointed the way toward a towering next ten days. 

Bruce Hodges

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