A Magnificent Mozart Triptych from Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

GermanyGermany Mozart: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 30.4.2017. (MB)

Beethoven – 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, ‘Jupiter’

I have heard the future: it is Mozartian and it works; it is, moreover, to be seen and heard here and now, in Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal. Last summer, I enthused about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s three final Mozart symphonies with Daniel Barenboim. I shall not read my review until after having written and posted this; yet, outstanding though those performances were, this was even better, not least thanks to the salle modulable, whose properties come, like Mozart’s music itself, to seem more miraculous with every encounter. As with the Schubert symphonies (Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin) of a week ago, Barenboim turned the orchestra round at the interval, affording us a difference of aural and visual perspective that put me in mind, however fancifully, of Boulez’s own Répons. (Now there is a thought for the hall…) There was, rightly, no scaling back: Barenboim deployed a full(ish) complement of strings ( and the results were almost everything Mozart might have wished for. Listen not to the authenticists: Mozart was perfectly clear that he wanted as large an orchestra, preferably larger than this, as was possible. Whatever they are preaching, it is not ‘authenticity’, certainly not in the large halls of today. To hear an orchestra such as this in a hall of this size, blessed with so warm and clear an acoustic is to get closer than most. Having mentioned the hall, though, very much part of the performance, as Barenboim clearly acknowledged at the close, I shall return it to the background, for the greatest achievement remained, as it always will in performance, that of the musicians.

The E-flat major Symphony received a performance still more ‘Beethovenian’, to use a shorthand concerning whose efficacy I remain unsure, than I can recall previously from Barenboim. I shall try to explain what I mean, and leave it to you whether I should simply have stuck with ‘outstanding’, which it undoubtedly was. The magnificent warmth of the orchestra, echoing Die Zauberflöte more keenly than ever, full of potentiality was undeniable in the introduction to the exposition; so too was Barenboim’s command of line, which continued, indeed intensified, quite unbroken, throughout the movement, throughout the symphony. Furtwängler would surely have nodded approval, although I wonder whether he might have found his anointed successor ever so slightly on the stern side here. (I did not; there is no one ‘right’ way.) Liminal mystery gave way, or rather resulted in, if you will forgive the metaphors, an exposition that itself took on the form of an extended Mannheim rocket, Kant’s ‘starry heavens’ its theatre. If the second subject were more courtly, more demure, it nevertheless arose out of the material, never merely contrasting with it. The concision of the development seemed ever greater on this occasion, the recapitulation reached, almost alla Mendelssohn, at a point of exhaustion, after which invention rose to still greater heights. This was champagne, yes, but with its pinot noir standing out for all to hear – and taste. The second movement emerged as a profoundly dialectical struggle, miraculously reconciled, or so it seemed. Charm and fury, melody and harmony worked their magic. Again, there was gravity, but there was hope, even the Hoffnung of Fidelio. This mattered every bit as much as the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony. The Minuet, taken on the cusp of three and one, was fast, perhaps surprisingly so, but it could yield and did, and not only in its Trio. The finale blazed with the integrity of Haydn, of Beethoven, even of Schoenberg, but the blend of its grapes could have been effected by no other musical vintner. This was, I think, the most modernistic Symphony no.39 I have heard, at the very least since Michael Gielen’s wonderful, sadly underrated, recording.

The G minor Symphony opened with the urgency of Furtwängler, if not quite his speed (although not so far off). Drama and line co-existed, or rather thrived upon one another. This time, Barenboim took the exposition repeat: it sounded and was necessary. Likewise the slight yielding for the second subject. That greater breadth – or different breadth, there being, of course, no introduction – in turn necessitated the strangeness of the development, in which contrapuntal clarity proved so crucial. Again, the recapitulation was upon us before we knew it, proving all the more developmental (yes, Beethovenian) in this case. The fall to the tonic minor spoke of unexaggerated tragedy, which yet developed into something all the more tragic. If I say, quoting Mozart in another context, that the slow movement flowed like oil, then that implies no loss to its gravity. It spoke unmistakeably of Bach at times, contrapuntal string variegation telling as much of the 48, so cherished by Mozart, as of the orchestral Bach. Tragedy was again the guiding principle of the Minuet, relieved by its Trio, yet we all knew that it would prove but momentary, such was the strength of line, the pull of tonal gravity. Still more so was that the tendency of the finale, any turn to the major mode all the more agonising for it. This was as grand a tragedy as, and yet, of course, more unalloyed than, Idomeneo, Bach supplanting Gluck.

Where Barenboim’s recent Jupiter Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic had proved relatively disappointing, this West-Eastern performance proved the truest of climaxes. The young players sounded so much more immediate, their performance so much fuller of life, that one might, however unwisely, have forsworn Vienna for life, or at least for a month or so. Barenboim imparted pomp and grandeur to the first movement, yes, but also an urgency that seemed to derive from what we had heard before the interval, the concert concerned with a triptych that took form in more than name. Rhetoric was more overt, but that goes with the territory. It made me think how I should love to hear him turn to La clemenza di Tito. Who knows? He conducted his first Gluck opera only last year. Back to Mozart, though: how the richness of the strings resounded, and how the division of violins, right and left, told, ‘echoes’ so much more than that, properly developmental. The bass line growled in the development as if it were Beethoven ‘ripe for the madhouse’, and yet, before one knew it, the music would again be all related sweetness and light. The thrill and satisfaction of the return and close was experienced as if an overture to the rest of the symphony.

In the second movement, the passion lying under the veil of muted strings seemed to speak of an aria that, having no words, could be, still more become, so much more than an aria. This had all the depth of Beethoven, but the spirit was entirely Mozart’s own, far closer to his piano concertos than to any symphonic successor. If I say its length was heavenly, I mean just that: not the back-handed compliment sometimes paid to Schubert. The Minuet took us to the Redoutensaal of our dreams, albeit thoroughly grounded in harmony. Its Trio sounded more intense still; this was no moment for relaxation. For the finale, that eighth wonder of the world, needed to fizz and to erupt, and how it did. Brilliant, Don Giovanni-like display, aching, Elvira-like tenderness, emotional representations of so many of Mozart’s characters were united in a symphonic argument that was taut yet far from relentless or unsmiling. Every flourish, every sigh came from and led somewhere, until we reached the coda: a climax to what we heard, no mere ‘tail-piece’ on this occasion. Is this the greatest of all symphonic finales? It certainly has, and in performance had, nothing to fear from comparison with Beethoven. He never exceeded it; how could he? This was not just the music of the future; it was the music of the spheres.

Mark Berry

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