Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Mozart and Bruckner, 16 April 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Mozart – Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor, KV 491
Bruckner – Symphony no.7 in E major

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor)


It was only a week ago that I heard Daniel Barenboim conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin in Lulu, or rather excerpts therefrom, at the Schillertheater, the Berlin State Opera’s temporary home. Now orchestra and conductor (pianist, too) embark upon a three-concert series in London, comprising two Mozart concertos and the three last Bruckner symphonies. I wish that the wearisomely modish, frankly meaningless, ‘project’ – this is ‘The Bruckner Project’ and we had a ‘Pollini Project’ last year – might forever be banished; for the moment, let us simply put it to one side.

To my ears, Mozart’s C minor piano concerto took a little time to settle. I say, ‘to my ears’, since I think it was as much a matter of the Royal Festival Hall acoustic from the back of the rear stalls as the performance itself, indeed maybe more so, the overhanging balcony being something of a menace in that respect. The size of the hall, too, means that forces such as Barenboim elected to employ can sound a little on the small side, especially before one’s ears adjust; a chamber orchestra of ten first violins and other strings proportionately is certainly not what Barenboim’s hero, Furtwängler, would have employed. Be that as it may, and I think that there was a degree of the Staatskapelle Berlin as well as my ears adjusting to the hall, Barenboim’s performance, if falling a little short of what we know of his Mozart from recordings, remained for the most part distinguished, above all by a command of line of which Furtwängler would surely have approved. The first movement benefited from some beautifully hushed piano playing, which had even serial coughers abate their personal contributions, although there were a few smudged passages, unfortunately including the opening piano statement. If the slow movement did not dawdle, nor did it sound at all rushed, as do so many contemporary readings; instead, it unfolded in apparent, if deceptive simplicity. The Staatskapelle’s woodwind, not least its principal flute, provided balm to the aural soul, as Mozart’s woodwind must, though there was some oddly marcato playing from the oboist; it seemed to be an interpretative decision, but I was not convinced, especially when phrases emerged with less than the requisite degree of moulding. In the finale, Barenboim, again despite odd slips, was very much in his element. He brought his small orchestra to near-Beethovenian – though the distinction between Mozart and Beethoven remained – strength of purpose, and clearly relished the chromaticism that points not only to Wagner but even to Schoenberg. (The same, of course, could be said of the first movement.) Fresh from what remained of Lulu after Andrea Breth’s butchering, Mozart’s own Berg-like labyrinth could hardly fail to appeal. Both cadenzas were, I think, recalling from recordings, Barenboim’s own, and worked extremely well in performance. A mobile telephone contribution did little, however, to enhance appreciation.

Bruckner continues, as the cliché has it, to divide opinion. For some, his symphonies represent a supreme spiritual statement; for others, the formal problems and long-windedness present an insuperable barrier. I have never really had a problem with the final three symphonies, though I cannot say that I find the Seventh’s structure entirely convincing; with the earlier works, more often than not, I find dead ends and redundant repetition. ‘Deformations’ of sonata form do not necessarily always mean to me here what the analysts take them to be. The odd thing about this performance from Barenboim was that I became more dissatisfied with the form of the Seventh than I previously recall. Was he laying bare its structure, problems and all? That would be one explanation, but, despite many very positive aspects to the performance, I think it was at least sometimes more a matter of failing, if only slightly, to pursue a convincing, certain path, of the line present in the Mozart concerto fading away a little. Not that this was Bruckner pulled around, but the first movement, whatever the truths of the clock, often sounded a little rushed, drama a touch applied rather than inherent. I was charmed, though, by the graceful Schubertian quality with which Barenboim at his best swept the music along. Yet, if this account stood worlds away from the majesty, the almost glacial implacability of Karajan’s late Vienna Philharmonic recording, the guiding thread and Wagnerian musico-dramatic purpose of Furtwängler also ultimately proved elusive. Moreover, despite a rich string tone that was for the most part ideally involving, there were times when the violins sounded tired. The slow movement, by contrast, was well paced throughout. I was surprised, however, by some surprisingly thin-sounding brass, though if mentioning that failing, I must note a truly blessed contribution from the Wagner tubas, fresh from Neidhöhle. The scherzo was light enough on its feet, though never did I hear the awe-struck apocalyptic quality both Furtwängler and Karajan in their different ways, not to mention a few other conductors, would impart to its progress. As for the finale, its material, and Bruckner’s way with it, seem as inappropriate to the rest of the symphony as they always have done to me. A great performance can come close to convincing me otherwise; a very good performance, alas, does not.

14 comments:

Evan Tucker said...

I certainly understand the arguments against Bruckner's treatment of form. And yes, as ever, there are performances that do not do Bruckner justice. But at his best, Bruckner's forms are truly inspiring. To me, the slow movement of the seventh symphony is the single greatest slow movement ever written - almost like a Platonic ideal of what a slow movement should be. Unfortunately Bruckner has contended with generations of octogenarian conductors who treat his music as geriatric pasture. But occasionally one finds a conductor (Barenboim is certainly better than most) who does not allow for static - Furtwangler of course, but also Jochum and Abendroth fit into this category quite well as well as others to a lesser extent. Surprisingly, the best of the contemporary Bruckner conductors might be Franz Welser-Most.

Zwölftöner said...

I can’t say I really understand the references to ‘formal problems’ (yes, it does need scare quotes) and sonata deformation theory. There are, I suppose, the theories of Darcy and Jackson, which didn’t much effort for Julian Horton to debunk, and Edward Laufer’s squeezing of the Ninth’s Adagio into a Schenkerian straightjacket, which Derek Puffett quite rightly picked apart. But your position and Laufer’s are actually the same in that the obsession with making Bruckner conform with paradigms stems from the misapprehension that his structural organization is deficient. It’s the ‘we don’t have the tools to penetrate it therefore it must be wrong’ mode of analytical thinking which has its stubborn corollary in criticism and listening habits going back to Hanslick’s day, and tells us more about our epistemological assumptions than it does about Brucknerian symphonic discourse.

Over in the more accommodating camp, Ben Korstvedt recently published an article in the MQ which makes a close reading of the transitional Steigerung that precedes the third theme in the first movement of the Seventh. With some justification, he sees it as no discontinuity, and uses his carefully selected example to cluck and tut about the ignorance of Bruckner’s contemporary critics and bemoan that many today still accept their judgement uncritically. I guess I’m more in agreement with Julian Horton, that in defending Bruckner’s mastery of form we are batting at a disadvantage unless we start interrogating our analytical models. I’m for multiplicity and drastic remodeling, though NRT as it stands is useful up to a point.

As for ‘formal problems’, I’d be happy to talk Mahler 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 with you any day...

Mark Berry said...

I'm willing to be convinced! Here I was more trying to give an account of what I heard than the score as such, though of course there was some degree of conflation. For what it is worth, I certainly have no ideological reason to make Bruckner or indeed any other music conform to some kind of ideal type. I don't find Schubert lacking because he isn't Beethoven, quite the contrary. (Schubert I mention because many point to apparent similarities with Bruckner, although those seem to me not very helpful, insofar as they exist at all.) But for me, at least some of the time, what we have in some Bruckner does not quite add up. No one would be more pleased than I, were I to have a 'Eureka' moment and everything were to fall into place, whatever place that might be. Furtwängler, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes as close as, perhaps closer than, anyone to convincing me in this work, which I freely admit has elements of greatness to it. (I agree with Evan about the greatness of the slow movement, even if I don't go so far along the Platonic road...)The finale, though, in crude terms seems to me a somewhat lumbering attempt to marry Bruckner's treatment of form with a would-be Haydnesque spirit, a spirit that simply does not tally with the weight of earlier material. To my ears, that is... However, as I said, I am ready and willing to be convinced. I agree wholeheartedly about the necessity to interrogate any and all analytical models.

Re Mahler, I think that is definitely a discussion we should have. Maybe when, all being well, I am in Vienna during the autumn...

Zwölftöner said...

Regarding conflation, doesn't one’s understanding of the score inform what one hears? It’s a pronounced tendency in Bruckner reception, I find. Korstvedt’s article is very interesting in this respect as he takes the first point of Brucknerian departure that would have rankled Hanslick and subjects it to a fairly straightforward analysis which shows, yes, that it has its place in the formal design, and doesn't need a Furtwängler (or Wand, Tintner, Celi, or any number of conductors who get Bruckner) to be perceived as such. And yet for the Bruckner sceptics today it still registers as a the first whopping non sequitur in the symphony. Why is that? I don’t go along with Ben when he writes modern audiences are conditioned by some Hanslickian rut to hear ‘non-normative = wrong’ – for one thing, is he really suggesting that listeners like you let Hanslick do your thinking for you? – but that said, is ‘dead end’ and ‘redundant repetition’ really non-ideological? Doesn’t this language suggest that Brucknerian practice isn’t sufficiently teleological? (I don’t mean to finger point, am just putting a question out there).

As we know from the Ninth, heavy was the head that bore the weight of crowning these immense works... I did once sense a similar problem of tone in the Seventh, of unfinished business too summarily dismissed, but have since concluded that the F major sections of the Scherzo do a convincing job of preparing us for the Finale. Lumbering perhaps, though no more than the third movement of Brahms 4, and formally there’s certainly nothing ‘wrong’ with it, which is to say that it neatly fits a Hepo-graph, though perhaps that is a problem...

You wouldn’t be giving a paper at the Schoenberg Center’s autumn symposium by any chance?

Mark Berry said...

I must look at the Korstvedt article: I'm afraid it is one of those many pieces on my 'to read' list, which I haven't yet read. However, in my case at least, I really cannot imagine that any problems I experience have anything to do with Hanslick. My sympathy with the latter tends to sub-zero... That said, I admit to responding far more readily to Brahms's symphonies; indeed, it is the lack of development, at least as I understand development, that lies at the heart of many of my difficulties with Bruckner. Schoenberg isn't that easy to shake off, of course, though I really do not mind the lack of such development in Messiaen, whose aesthetic seems more obviously to fit with it. (If something can fit with a lack...!)

Afraid not re the symposium, though I am hoping to be doing some work at the ASC towards the end of the year.

Evan Tucker said...

Well, perhaps the Platonic ideal was a bit of overstatement, but only a bit... For orchestral music, I do believe it is the greatest of all slow movements, and generally that Bruckner wrote a plurality of the greatest slow movements in all orchestral literature - defining the slow movement for all time as much as Haydn did the opening, Beethoven the finale and Mahler the Scherzo.

Also, I'm generally negative on Boulez and see him as having an almost calamitous effect on music in our time. But that recording of the 8th Symphony you mention is truly magnificent. Part of why Boulez seems to me such a negative figure in music history because he is so talented, and his high points can be as high as any musician could ever be.

Mark Berry said...

The Boulez recording truly is a thing of wonder, isn't it? Glad you agree. As I said, it really unlocked the door for me. And how the VPO plays for him!

Evan, I'm not saying this because I am spoiling for a fight - though you might get one! - but I wonder if you might expand on why you see him as a negative, even calamitous, figure. As a composer, a conductor, an educator, none of the above, all three? I suppose that, for me, his true greatness lies not only in his staggering ability, genius, call it what you will, but in the role he has played for so many decades now, almost as the conscience of what I am still just about old-fashioned enough to call new music. That doesn't mean, I hope, that I am uncritical, nor that I slavishly follow; there is a great deal of music he would disdain, which I admire enormously. But I should be disingenuous were I not to admit a certain degree of overlap...

Evan Tucker said...

I can't imagine this isn't one of these issues on which both of us could write book-length treatises. disagreement with Boulez. I'll try to succinctly address all three points and a fourth.

As a composer, I believe Boulez is a talent, not a genius (which Messiaen, Ligeti and Berio all were). At his best, he is a very skilled miniaturist and colorist who has managed to fool the public by overlaying his music with an enormous amount of theoretical jargon that means absolutely nothing. My favorite pieces of his are probably the Anthemes and Messangesquisse, they are good miniatures on their own which need no explanation. On the other hand, more 'major' works of his like Sur Incises, Repons, Le Marteau Sans Maitre, Rituel, and Pli Salon Pli would be utterly without interest to people if there were not some sort of theoretical jargon to explain them that has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the music.

As a conductor Boulez is a great but narrow talent, who generally eschews personalized expression who of course has a wonderful ear for sound and detail. Yet sometimes he can surprise by letting his (obviously) volcanic natural temperament through. Many of his recordings are terrible, yet some of them are absolutely stunning, and generally in music one would not expect. I don't think much of him in Mahler or Messiaen, but he is of course wonderful in Debussy (I'd take the Cleveland Nocturnes with me to a desert island) and Ravel, but I find his Wagner equally wonderful - utterly without extra helpings of the ponderousness that generally makes Wagner a composer whom I view with ambivalence (ducks for cover...).

As an educator he is selectively generous, but I think this one can be tied in to the last point.

(continued in a second part...)

Evan Tucker said...

What you call 'conscience' I must reluctantly call 'unconscionable.' Far and away, Boulez's most important contribution to music history is as a polemicist - it is the one field in which I'd unhesitantly proclaim his genius. What is most extraordinary about Boulez is the fact that a 25 year old French music student could cow the entire world of new music into adopting his view of what music should be almost wholesale. I do not dislike dodecaphonic music as a technique, I merely begrudge Boulez's Hegelian insistence that the dodecaphonic language is the ultimate end to which all music has been striving, and that all composers throughout history can only be judged by the standards of how they measure by his metrics. Thanks to Boulez's intimidation, Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Copland all adopted a system for which they had no real sympathy (Messiaen perhaps). Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of composers who might have been great had they pursued their personal vision were either coerced or indoctrinated into adopting the serial language. I know less about the situation in Europe, but in America, a composer who did not adopt some sort of serialist, atonal or Cagean experimental worldview was an academic pariah with an almost guaranteed tenure repellent. Who knows how many gifted composition students came through music schools and simply gave up because they weren't allowed to write the music they wanted to write?

Perhaps Boulez is merely a symptom of the general unhealthiness of classical music in our time, not the cause. But there is something deeply authoritarian in his mindset, and music is far poorer for the effect he's had. Classical composition was once the most venerated of all professions in the musical world (and arguably the entire artistic world). But today, even the best or most famous classical composers dwell in cultural backwaters. I certainly do not believe Boulez to be the sole cause of it, but I can't pretend I don't think he's played a significant role in that unfortunate relegation.

I'm well aware from your writing that you have a number of points of disagreement with Boulez, and I respect your individuality in that regard. But unlike you, Boulez would like us not to live in a world where music lovers have a right to disagree with one another.

Well, that was far longer than I had hoped to be...apologies...but for better or worse, Boulez inspires much discussion.

Mark Berry said...

I shall leave aside Boulez's own music for the moment, save to say that I couldn't agree more and that the most recent performance I heard of Pli selon pli (last autumn, the composer conducting) was truly a sensuous revelation. And unlike, say, Le Marteau, I have never studied the score; my appreciation is certainly not a matter of theoretical explanation.

I shall skip over Boulez as conductor for now too, to move on to what seems to the nub of the issue. Was the situation concerning American academic tenure really anything to do with him at all? Even in France, let alone the rest of Continental Europe, Boulez's views were vigorously contested, both within the broadly serialist camp - look, for instance, at Die Reihe - and without. Indeed, the French musical establishment was so hostile that he famously declared that there was no point continuing to make music in France at all. Mediocrities - well, worse than that, given their pernicious influence - such as André Malraux and Marcel Landowski won out, and Boulez declared the 'Latin countries' good only for vacations. At any rate, surely the situation with respect to American music is entirely different now, and has been for a long time. At least from a European perspective, it is the minimalists and fellow travellers, 'neo-Romantic' and all, who seem to hold sway. Carter is an exception of course, but a truly singular exception, and one who often seems more valued over here than at home. Doubtless there is more to it than crowd-pleasing, just as there is more to serialism than the opposite, but the hostility Boulez faced in New York seems indicative of something significantly less than victory.

But perhaps more to the point, it seems to me that even in the heyday of Darmstadt, there was nothing remotely monolithic or dictatorial. (Someone such as Henze would disagree, of course, but he has his own reasons.) One of Boulez's many achievements was to present the works of the Second Viennese School in performances at a level where the works could genuinely be appreciated. He was not of course the only person to do so, but he was of immense importance in that respect. (I remember reading with astonishement that he gave the Boston premiere of Berg's Op.6 Orchestral Pieces in the late 1960s!) In that sort of environment, music that had been suppressed, both by political and conservative audience tyranny, could flower and provoke discussion. A few years ago, I heard Nuria Schoenberg-Nono - parti pris, perhaps, but also in a good position to know - speak of Darmstadt not as some quasi-totalitarian Ministry of Serialist Truth but as a place of openness, experimentation, and, perhaps most interestingly, as a meeting-place for those who had survived the horrors of fascism - that is, in many cases, the older generation - with the post-war avant garde. Moreover, the variety of responses, both between composers and within composers' oeuvres themselves is often wildly underestimated. After all, even Le Marteau marks either a retreat from or an advance upon a work of total serialism such as the first book of Structures. The moment at which Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio were truly writing total serialist music was brief indeed: heady, no doubt, but almost over in the twinkling of an eye.

For what it is worth, I think the late works of Stravinsky are true jewels. He took to the method like a duck to water, in an utterly individual way, responding to quite different situations from either Schoenberg or Boulez. I should hate to be in a world without the Requiem Canticles, Threni, etc.

Zwölftöner said...

If one isn't prepared to take Nuria's word for it, then there are the soberly written reports of Konrad Boehmer.

Deliberately ignoring Boulez, it would surely take very little study of Threni, Kreuzspiel and the relevant bits of Il canto sospeso to acknowledge the heterogeneity of outcome integral serialism produced.

Evan Tucker said...

Well I certainly respect your opinions, but for me, Pli Salon Pli frankly has all the sensuality of dried fruit. Likewise I've never analyzed it, but if a does not speak to me, as many Boulez scores do not, then life is simply too short to waste on devoting energy and resources to music that one does not already enjoy.

Many people allege that Boulez is unfairly blamed for things that are not his fault. Perhaps they're right. The point however remains that Boulez created a climate of such intellectual fear that even the musical colossi of earlier generations felt the need to abandon their personal musical languages. Whether or not Boulez is personally responsible for the undue pressure to adopt atonal music that can still be felt in some academic circles (at least in America and Israel where I've lived longterm), he clearly is the progenitor of that climate, and certainly did nothing to discourage it.

Boulez was obviously contested by Malraux (whom I've never read) and Landowski (who is rather mediocre), but he made such success in Germany that even a composer as advanced as Hans Werner Henze felt no need to return to Germany. You admit Henze as a point to the contrary, but it's not only Henze who ultimately felt that way. Ligeti did too and said so in interviews (though there's not enough time at the moment to look for them).

As for American music and their various neo-romantic and minimalist styles, there are more and less interesting composers in each style, and more and less interesting works among each composer. Just as it would be unfair to write off the entirety of serialism and atonality because one might disagree with the aesthetic principles, it would be unfair to write all of them off without investigating (at least cursorily) what major and young composers are capable of doing with it. In many articles you've stated that current climate is overdone in catering to popular, or perhaps simplistic trends, and as it happens I agree with you to some degree. But I think it's an understandable overreaction to what was in itself an overreaction in American Classical Music to the rise of popular music. And regardless of how one feels about certain contemporary composers, every compositional 'school' should be agreeing upon one point: which is that we should all be working to reestablish composers at the center of contemporary musical life. Composers used to be the most important artists of their time. There are hundreds of millions of people in our own countries who will die having never heard Beethoven performed live (let alone Henze). And to simply dismiss all composers of a certain aesthetic would be utterly destructive to that goal. I do not think badly of Boulez because of his principles, I think badly of him because he thinks his principles should be mine.

In any event, as a conductor he played an enormous role in training orchestras for contemporary music. I think his performances of the Second Viennese School are extremely important and I value them, even if I ultimately might prefer a freer hand like Rattle or Barenboim (albeit your account of Lulu in Berlin does not inspire much confidence...). As for late Stravinsky, I find my attention wandering rather quickly after a moment or two's absorbtion. My favorite of the late works (admittedly not a high bar to clear) is The Flood, but I suppose it's worth remembering that even Boulez himself is not enamored of late Stravinsky.

Evan Tucker said...

...And I suppose I should probably add that my dislike of late Stravinsky is coincidentally grounded in precisely the two works you mention. I actually am quite fond of Agon and In memoriam Dylan Thomas (though I suppose they qualify as 'Not quite as Late Stravinsky.')

Mark Berry said...

Agon I adore; it is one of my very favourite Stravinsky works. Who else but Stravinsky would have had the idea and indeed the nerve to bring together Rameau and Webern, let alone to end up sounding only like himself?

I think one probably also ought to remember the climate in which Boulez came of age. French musical life had, for better or worse, been more or less taken over by neo-classicism. (That, incidentally, is where my attention often though by no means always begins to wander in Stravinsky. If I never hear Apollo or Orpheus again, it will not be a disappointment...) Much German music had been entirely out of bounds, so much so that he had barely heard any Mahler, let alone Schoenberg or Webern. Messiaen's class was clearly a liberation for many, not just for Boulez. And of course, most 'modern' music had been for quite some time prohibited in Germany too, hence the extraordinary opportunity afforded at Darmstadt and Donaueschingen. Initial catching up was as much to do with Stravinsky, Hindemth, Bartók, et al., as the Second Viennese School. The myth of a 'Stunde Null' was just that, of course, a myth, but one can understand why it was so attractive, especially in political terms.