Memorable Schumann from Argerich, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin

GermanyGermany Schumann: Martha Argerich (piano), Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 6.9.2021 (MB)

Martha Argerich

Schumann – Symphony No.1 in B-flat major, Op.38, ‘Spring’; Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54; Symphony no.2 in C major, op.61

There are worse ways to celebrate one’s birthday than to hear Martha Argerich, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and Daniel Barenboim in an all-Schumann concert. In truth, there are few, if any, better. Tastes vary, of course; there is notoriously no account for them. Taste, a merely personal matter, aside, though, there are no musicians alive any reasonable listener would esteem more highly in this music. What a treat, moreover, to have Barenboim defiantly — whether in the face of endemic ‘period’ talk or pandemic viral contagion — deploy a full-scale symphony orchestra, from sixteen first violins down to eight double basses, on the Staatsoper stage.

An echt-Romantic horn call, full of expectancy, repeated by full orchestra heralded the Spring Symphony. This introduction had such depth of tone and palpable drama, one knew it would be a special evening. Freshness, precision, and depth characterised the playing throughout, the first movement development’s counterpoint clear, directed, and above all meaningful. The music fairly danced, even balletically, when called for. Festal, with inwardness where required, its balances were just right. The second movement flowed tenderly, Barenboim here and elsewhere often content to let the players play with little or no direction from him. Shifting moods were always, rightly, founded on harmonic change. The Scherzo was on the grand scale, wanting nothing either in vigour or in ravishing woodwind solo playing, likewise its trios. Magnificent! A finale full of picturesque incident, Mendelssohn and even Elgar coming to mind, revealed its not uncomplicated structure readily, Barenboim never losing sight of the wood for the trees. A Tristan-esque ripeness to the Staatskapelle horns recalled former nights in this very house. Splitting violins left and right truly paid dividends in antiphonal statement and response. The closing flourish alone was worth the price of admission.

Lyricism and grandeur, urgency and expanse: that was only the first few bars of the Piano Concerto. This was both chamber and orchestral music, with again extraordinarily fine woodwind solos. Argerich’s shading of a single phrase was eloquent, never fussy, never for its own sake. Even at the height of reverie, there was no question of line and direction. Voice-leading beguiled yet with clear purpose. The first-movement cadenza has its own trajectory, of course, verging on Brahms — and so it sounded here. Just to hear Argerich’s trills was (almost) enough. Eusebius – from the composer’s conflicting dualities of Florestan and Eusebius – responded in the slow movement, taken attacca, thereby heightening the impression of two sides to the same coin of personality. Its tricky mix of skittishness and Innigkeit suited Argerich to a tee. Strings, above all cellos, shone with equal brightness. It seemed over almost before the transition to the finale had begun. It was every inch a concerto finale, full of light and shade, for there was quite a journey still to go, ever more exhilarating, infectious even (in a good sense!) Piano and woodwind ravished alike, counterpoint and harmony directed as one. If again the piano sometimes sounded close to Brahms, that is only because it should. What strength and delicacy there was in those fingers, so ably supported by Barenboim and his orchestra. As an encore — yes, an Argerich encore — we heard the first of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, ‘Von fremden Ländern und Menschen’. Limpid, warm, and directed, it sounded as if a microcosm of the Concerto.

Daniel Barenboim (c) Holger Kettner

If counterpoint were crucial before, it was at least doubly so in the Second Symphony, which opened in strikingly Bachian style: not the lamentable, enfeebled Bach of today’s ‘specialists’, but Schumann’s Bach, the world’s Bach. And so it continued, with well-nigh Beethovenian strength of purpose, urgency something born from within, not applied from without. (You know the sort of performance and conductors I have in mind.) To hear this string section in all its glory was everything. One heard afresh, moreover, quite what a complex, radical opening movement this is, imbued with post-Beethovenian humanism that by now is almost Barenboim’s own. Fast need not mean dehumanised, though all too often it does in a culture that prizes all things other than spirit. The Scherzo thrilled at quite a tempo, virtuosic, but in a musical sense, Beethoven steel added to Mendelssohn-like effervescence. The first trio relaxed, not too much, but enough. Tender and colourful, it looked back to the First Symphony and the Piano Concerto. Its successor sang beautifully, string counterpoint propelling it on its way. The dash to the finish was duly exhilarating: a force of nature, one might say, save for the artistry involved. A gravely beautiful slow movement was richly sustained throughout, strings once again tugging at the heart strings. Bach’s example was felt throughout the counterpoint: calling his name in declaring it anew. If anything, the orchestra sounded still more miraculous in the finale. Weight and warmth, vigour and virtuosity: music poured forth like Wagnerian molten lava, form created in the moment, yet unerringly prepared. We need Barenboim to return to Bach — and, as Edward Said urged him, finally to conduct the St Matthew Passion.

Mark Berry

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