A Special Evening of Music from Argerich and Barenboim in Salzburg


AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival [1] – Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Lutosławski: Martha Argerich (piano), West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim (conductor), Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, 14.8.2019. (MB)

Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim (c) Marco Borrelli

Schubert – Symphony No.8 in B minor D759, ‘Unfinished’
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor Op.23
Lutosławski – Concerto for Orchestra

Most likely our greatest living Schubert conductor, Daniel Barenboim lent credence to the claim in this West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performance of the Unfinished, the best I can recall since Bernard Haitink and the LSO ten years ago – and with the benefit of a far superior hall and acoustic to the Barbican, let alone the Royal Albert Hall, where Barenboim and his musicians had given the same programme a couple of nights earlier. Opening truly de profundis – an orchestra with a string section of this size truly helps here – and febrile, generative, it was clear from the outset that this would be special. This, it seemed, was music that had always been – waiting, Schopenhauer-like, to be voiced. Teeming with melody, ever grounded in harmony, it was music that both could not wait, yet must, until the abyss: the onset of the development section. Dark, rich strings and brings, offset by forest woodwind took us by the hand, grabbed us by the scruff of the neck: they did what was necessary, as did Schubert. Battle royal ensued, the intensity such as to have thoughts of Furtwängler well-nigh inescapable. Intimations of Wagner were doubtless not unrelated. In the recapitulation, all had been changed – forever. That is what happens when music, when music-making, matters. We had seen death, but this was no place to be maudlin, for we had looked it, ‘whatever ‘it’ may be, in the face. The coda’s grave beauty told us all we needed to know. Balance and progression were felt, experienced in the second movement. Its debts to Haydn were rendered lovingly clear: rusticity, yes, but also method, a method that helped render Schubert’s farsighted Romanticism all the more remarkable and poignant, not least in woodwind solos and string responses. It was perhaps, though, the transitions that told us most, not least those that might have seemed ‘mere’ silence on the page. Fernhören, then, as Furtwängler would have put it, but also Fernspielen.

Martha Argerich joined the orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. These players, Barenboim too, have a lengthy and distinguished track record in Tchaikovsky’s music, which showed in the assured swagger of the opening, to which those piano chords were the only possible response. The depth of tone on which Argerich could draw, and did, was as remarkable as ever, likewise the variety of meaningful articulation. Her soulful skittishness rubbed off on the woodwind, and vice versa, so much of what we heard chamber music writ large. Lest all we heard seem a little too Mendelssohnian, there were Schumannesque reverie, muscle too, and backbone: this was a piano tigress of surpassing versatility, with double octaves that would have had Liszt himself sit up. I am no friend of applause between movements, but could readily have forgiven it here. There was none; instead, a good few audience members elected to chatter during the pizzicato opening to the second movement. Insofar as I could tell, it sounded lovely. A fine balance was struck, at any rate, between subsequent simplicity and complexity (not least but certainly not only metrical). There was little doubt where the finale was heading, urgent without a hint of the hard-driven, like the final flow of a mighty river and the human life gathered on its banks. For this was a performance full of delightful incident, first to be savoured, then fondly recalled. As an encore, Barenboim and Argerich treated us to a few minutes of decidedly superior domesticity: the Schubert A major Rondo, D 951, its lengths above all heavenly, Barenboim’s closing trill to die for.

A Concerto for Orchestra makes excellent sense as repertoire for a youth orchestra. The young players certainly seemed to relish the challenges of Lutosławski’s, in this splendidly vivid performance. Foreboding was in the air of the opening: foreboding that perhaps already had a sense of something beyond, a possible destination, Barenboim hearing and communicating form and possibilities, horizontal and vertical, as vividly as he had that of the Schubert symphony. Bartók’s spirit was present, of course; how could it not be? Prokofiev’s too, probably. These, however, were welcome guests at the feast, unease always present enough to prevent any folkloric elements from cloying. Scurrying and slide-slipping, the second movement again brought Prokofiev to mind. Fantasy and obstinacy were held in excellent balance, such as could only have resulted from playing of considerable excellence. Barenboim captured to a tee the decidedly post-war mood of the finale’s passacaglia section: Zimmermann as much as Shostakovich, though that is not in any straightforward sense to ascribe ‘influence’. Likewise the toccata, whose fantastical qualities – colour, rhythm, harmony – again brought Prokofiev to the fore, perhaps above all in a cacophonous passage that might almost have come from The Fiery Angel, or Le Pas d’acier. It was Bartók who emerged most clearly in the closing chorale section, yet with space and clarity that enabled us to hear difference as well as similarity. If the finale still sounded a little drawn out to me, that is doubtless my problem; I cannot recall a performance that made greater sense of it.

Mark Berry


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