Friday 21 March 2008

Brahms, Schoenberg, and Wagner: Lang Lang/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim, 20 March 2008

Philharmonie, Berlin

Brahms – Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, Op.15
Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Wagner – Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and ‘Liebestod’

Lang Lang (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

It is not pleasant to write a damning review, but this performance of the first Brahms piano concerto was dreadful. Despite – or perhaps on account of – the hype, this was the first occasion on which I had heard Lang Lang. One should not build too much upon a single hearing, but at the very least I doubt that I shall ever wish to hear him in Brahms again. If I strain to find something to be said in its favour, the performance was technically correct – as it should be, for no pianist who cannot encompass the notes has any business performing the work, although he can readily be forgiven for omitting the odd note here and there. However, it did not for me yield a single musical insight; it did not appear remotely comprehending of Brahms in general or this concerto in particular. It was perhaps Brahms for those who prefer Rachmaninov. There were, it was true, moments of pianistic – in the worst sense – beauty, especially the trills, but they were in no sense integrated into the musical argument. How could there be, when there was none? The first movement might just about have passed muster, since it was dull rather than truly vulgar; the second movement, however, was something else. Lang Lang’s opening statement here had to be heard to be believed. The bizarre ornamentation – surely it was not a slip of the fingers? – and café-pianist spreading of the chords came as close to unforgivable as any musical performance I can recall. Much of the movement was taken not only at so wilfully slow a pace, but without any sense of a basic pulse, that it was distended almost beyond endurance. The third movement could only be an improvement after that, and I suppose it was, but again it placed empty virtuosity – in Brahms of all composers! – above musical substance. If there were one conductor who could have reined in this pianist it ought to have been Daniel Barenboim, but he seemed generally content to follow. The orchestral part of this truly symphonic concerto was thereby short-changed, although it was not without its moments of beauty, especially from the woodwind and the gorgeously rich second-movement ’cellos. As for the encore, it was even worse. Liszt’s transcription of the ‘Liebestod’ – his coinage rather than Wagner’s – from Tristan und Isolde was reduced to a level of vulgarity beneath the emptiest of Donizetti. There was simply melody, pulled around outrageously, and an utterly inappropriate sparkling of ‘accompaniment’. If Lang Lang did not understand Brahms at all, he somehow managed to understand Wagner even less. His ‘soulful’ facial expressions were perhaps even more irritating than they had been during the concerto. Much of the audience lapped it up.

Thank goodness then for the second half! Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin sounded rejuvenated. Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, one of the pinnacles of the twentieth-century repertoire, received, as so rarely they do, a performance fully consonant with their stature. Every section of the orchestra shone, in terms of attack, rhythmic precision, tonal security, ensemble, and sheer beauty – though never for its own sake – of sound. There was a delicate sense of chamber music when required, not least from the string principals, and equal vastness of orchestral voice when that was necessary. In Barenboim’s hands, the work sounded like a drama without words, which in many senses it is. There was a clear sense of a narrative unfolding, from the astounding violence – matching anything in the Rite of Spring – of the first movement Vorgefühle, through the shimmering Klangfarbenmelodie of the third, to the brave new world of the fifth’s ‘obligato recitative’, which casts its shadow over so much of its century. The fourth movement’s peripeteia truly sounded like a turning point, and the aching beauty of the second’s reminiscences of things past conjured up a canvas that belied the relative brevity of the work as a whole. Barenboim ensured that each movement had its own soundworld and story to tell, but never at the expense of its place in the work as a whole. In this reading, the pieces sounded as the symphony, albeit without voices, that Schoenberg planned yet never completed, subsuming it into the also-unfinished Die Jakobsleiter. We were also reminded that he was every bit as great an orchestral colourist as Debussy, something for which he is all too rarely given credit.

The Tristan extracts also showed conductor and orchestra on form, far more so than in the previous night’s sometimes casual Meistersinger. My suspicion is that this – along with Parsifal – is more Barenboim’s piece than Die Meistersinger. At any rate, there was an absolute surety of the journey to be taken, married to a gorgeousness of orchestral sound akin to Nietzsche’s ‘voluptuousness of hell’. Wave upon wave surged, until repose was finally granted. The strings’ vibrato was perfectly judged, the unendliche Melodie omnipresent. Indeed, I could find nothing at which to cavil. If this was a swifter, less ‘metaphysical’ reading than one might have expected from a disciple of Furtwängler, then it was all the better for telling its own tale.