Peerless Mozart from Daniel Barenboim and the VPO

GermanyGermany Berlin Festtage 2022 [1] – Mozart: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim (piano & conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 6.4.2022 (MB)

Daniel Barenboim conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Mozart – Symphony No.25 in G minor, KV 183/173dB; Piano Concerto No.27 in B-flat major, KV 595; Symphony No.38 in D major, KV 504, ‘Prague’

The Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s annual Festtage have been cancelled two years running, but in 2022 it is third time lucky. Wagner, however, has another year off prior to the forthcoming new Ring, directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. He is replaced with Mozart, in the guise of all three Da Ponte operas in new — or almost new — productions by Vincent Huguet, and three concerts. We began, as has recently become traditional, with a concert from Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this was the finest performance I have ever heard of the so-called ‘Little’ G minor Symphony KV 183/173dB. The first movement exposition alone offered weight and lightness, space and urgency, string agitation and the finest woodwind balm, in a fiercely dialectical conception that bent time where necessary (the second group) yet pressed on regardless. Lest that sound unduly Beethovenian — Beethoven would surely have admired, but could never have emulated this — the inverted symmetries of the exposition close (heard twice, given Barenboim’s observance of the repeat) spoke of something else entirely. Here and elsewhere, that perfection of balance which many, Wagner included, have woefully misunderstood in the symphonic Mozart, might historically have been traced to Austrian or Salzburg antecedents, even Johann Christian Bach, but in reality belonged to no one other than Mozart himself. The extraordinary intensity of the development section, especially at its sparest, transformed all before it, preparing the way for, without intruding on, the ineffable, Catholic tragedy of the final return to G minor. Those who fail to understand Mozart theologically will always underestimate him.

The second movement, warmly and richly lyrical, had its flow and emotional arc equally well judged, Barenboim’s great strength, as in Beethoven, Wagner, and much else, being his ability not only to balance different musical demands but to integrate them. Not for nothing is he an excellent conductor of Schoenberg. There was here enough of the Salzburg serenade to feel kinship, and enough distance from it equally to sense its difference. If the minuet burst forth with a defiance that again would surely have impressed Beethoven, it was in a voice very different not only from Beethoven’s but from the nature of his subjectivity. It might have been God Himself. A garden of delights, whether earthly or heavenly — why choose? — from Viennese woodwind in the trio reminded us of the fallacy of a secular/sacred dichotomy for the Enlightenment at large, and certainly for Mozart. The finale, aptly enough, proved both more defiant and more determined to leaven that defiance with a symmetrical imperative such as heard at the close of the first-movement exposition. Barenboim, conducting here as elsewhere from memory, knew the score in more senses than one.

There was much to admire in Barenboim and the VPO’s account of Mozart’s final piano concerto too, although the finale tired a little in its second half. Its ‘lateness’ was not exactly exaggerated, but became, intentionally or otherwise, a little too pronounced (for me, though apparently not for the rest of an enthusiastic audience). The first movement, though, received a model performance, its opening tutti bright not maudlin, albeit with subtle harmonic hints at something darker beneath the surface. Transparent Vienna sound here and elsewhere astonished in sheer variegation. Barenboim’s playing was wisely collegial, drawing on what is now a lifetime’s experience. How easy — crucially — he made it sound, as indeed did the orchestra. He knew precisely when and how to draw a different colour from the instrument for a phrase echo or sequence. Perhaps there might have been a little more sparkle, but a hint of melancholy is far from inappropriate here. A dream-like cadenza spoke with the intimacy that was this performance’s hallmark. The Larghetto was warm, loving, though never too much; it expanded the emotional range, gloriously unhurried without ever being merely slow. And the finale began, at least, with all the lightness and energy of the young men Barenboim and Mozart remained. Barenboim showed us how he can still turn a phrase, meaningfully, preparing the next, seemingly effortless. This was still intimate music-making, with no grandstanding, capturing something close to the essence of an innocent rondo that yet knows.

The ‘Prague’ Symphony’s introduction was grand and spacious, always moving forward to an implicit goal. Its richness was felt, without needing to make of a point of it; it was that which led us imperceptibly into a first-movement exposition of equal richness and potentiality. It proved as ever-developmental as Beethoven, but again differently, that crucial Mozartian element of balance equally important. A rigorous development section showed Mozart having learned Bach’s contrapuntal lessons well. Beethoven again came to mind in the recapitulation: not because this was ‘like’ his music, but because one could hear where so much Beethoven came from. (It is not only Haydn; Barenboim and the VPO know that.) The exultancy of the final climax was both seen and heard. A similarly developmental Andante had more pronounced lightness and shade, heard — and played — as if in a single, infinitely divisible breath. The finale erupted and concluded: strong, detailed, and full of life, as if an orchestral reflection or elaboration of Don Giovanni, which of course — bear in mind the symphony’s nickname — is in part precisely what it is.

Mark Berry

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