United States Mozart, Bruckner: Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 20.1.2017 (BH)
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.20 in D Minor K.466
Bruckner – Symphony No.2 in C Minor (1877 version)
At the end of this concert at Carnegie Hall — the second of nine in the first-ever Bruckner cycle presented in the United States — came a singular moment that will not be repeated at any of the remaining seven nights. (The elephant in the room: earlier in the day, the 45th President of the United States had been inaugurated in Washington, DC.)
After the conclusion of a spectacular reading of Bruckner’s Second Symphony with the Staatskapelle Berlin, Carnegie’s Executive Director, Clive Gillinson, came onstage to recognize conductor Daniel Barenboim’s 60th anniversary—to the day—of his first appearance at the hall. Before that debut, Barenboim had auditioned for Leopold Stokowski in Paris, at the home of the composer Alexandre Tansman (d. 1986, and if you don’t know his work, investigate promptly). Stokowski asked the 14-year-old pianist what he would like to play. Barenboim replied with his latest study: “Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto!” to which Stokowski replied, “Good! You will play Prokofiev’s First.”
After asking the audience to indulge him for just a few more minutes, Barenboim went on to describe the crucial role of music and the arts, and pleaded not to take the role of Carnegie Hall for granted in American life. “You cannot put culture at the end of the list. It is not a matter of money, but attitude. Music is not cultural elitism. It is about human contact, human communication.” He continued, praising the high quality of American musicians and making reference to a well-publicized campaign slogan: “America has the capacity to make the world better—to make the world ‘great again.’” The hall, still packed, erupted in cheers.
In my lifetime, I doubt I will again see post-concert remarks so perfectly attuned to the events of the day.
Oh, right: before all that, there was music. Barenboim is pairing the Bruckner evenings with Mozart, usually a piano concerto, and on this occasion, No.20. The previous night had featured No.27, which was agreeable, but not inspired. Whether due to rest, more rehearsal time, extra-musical events—or the work itself—the reason is unclear.
What was clear was Barenboim’s no-nonsense reading. Orchestral balances that were dicey on the first night, now snapped back into shape. Mild tempi disagreements had vanished. In the final movement, a dreamy, introspective cadenza had moments of silence that only emphasized the rapt attention of the crowd, before a headlong dash to the finish line.
Like the first night, when Barenboim took Bruckner’s inaugural symphony at face value, the conductor showed the Second to be a much more involving, even riveting, creation than some might think. Once again, the orchestra’s timpanist, Dominic Oelze, showed how the instrument can carry enormous impact with the lightest of touches. But others distinguished themselves: Thomas Beyer and Claudia Stein on flutes, Mathias Baier on bassoon, Ignacio Garcia as principal horn—the latter leading a phalanx of glory.
In the Second, Bruckner was already finding melodic cells that would become even more refined later. A searching line in the cellos anticipates the opening radiance of the Symphony No.7. The gentle Adagio—one of the composer’s finest—presages the even more elaborate slow movements to emerge in the future. In the hands of the orchestra’s double bass contingent — eight strong, and often at a whisper — their arpeggios evoked Philip Glass, slowed to a crawl.
The Scherzo felt like waltzing off a cliff (if that can be felt as a good thing), flushed with brass, and the violas showed their finest in the trio section. In the finale, those who imagine the composer is all about serenity were rebuked by Barenboim’s ferocious, almost vicious attacks. But climaxes were always cooled off by hushed sequences. (It has to be said: there’s a lot of coitus interruptus in Bruckner.)
Like the First, the Second ends somewhat abruptly, but as in the previous night, Barenboim persuaded, ending the evening — at least, the musical portion — with a gleaming burst. Based on these two initial concerts, this is going to be a hell of a cycle.