Monday, 2 February 2009

Salzburg Mozartwoche (3): Daniel Barenboim and Elena Bashkirova - Mozart and Schoenberg, 1 February 2009

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg

Mozart – Five variations on an Andante, for piano, four hands, KV 501
Schoenberg – Three piano pieces, op.11
Schoenberg, arr. Webern – Five orchestral pieces, op.16
Mozart – Fantasia in C minor, KV 475
Mozart – Piano sonata in C minor, KV 457

Elena Bashkirova (piano)
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

There was one and only one sense in which this solo/duo recital proved a disappointment. The promised performance of Boulez’s first book of Structures failed to materialise. An opportunity to hear this high water-mark of serialism from any performers, let alone from pianists who show a great commitment to contemporary music without in any sense being ‘specialists’, is a rare one indeed; it would surely have been a highpoint in the Salzburg Mozartwoche’s coverage of one of this year’s featured composers. Why it was replaced I can only speculate but I am sure that, if there were any difficulties, it was better to cancel than to present an unready performance.

Instead, Daniel Barenboim and Elena Bashkirova presented Webern’s 1912 transcription for two pianos of Schoenberg’s Five orchestral pieces, op.16, a rarity that in any other context I should have welcomed with open arms – and indeed, once over the initial disappointment, did here. In this of all works, much is lost in transcription, especially in Farben, the locus classicus of Klangfarbenmelodie. Any number of pianos cannot begin to suggest, let alone truly to express, that astoundingly original and, more important, beautiful rethinking of melody through transformation of tone-colours. One is made to listen to the harmonies, of course, which are far from without interest, although they sound a little like greyed Debussy in this context. Otherwise, however, there is a great deal to be learned from Webern’s transcription. It is not of especial interest in itself; it is certainly not the kind of reimagination that Schoenberg visited upon Bach or Brahms, let Handel or Monn. One can only guess at the rage with which the composer would have reacted to such impudence. Webern, however, acts with typical fidelity to his teacher and allows one to hear all sorts of compositional details in new light, just as one does in, say, Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies. Barenboim is an experienced Schoenbergian and one of the world’s greatest interpreters of this very work in its original version, as I had experienced last year in Berlin. The pieces’ structure was lain bare but so was their enthralling dramatic drive – and their symphonic unity. Peripetie did just what it should, provided a (tragic?) turning-point and the ominous nature of Vorgefühle was almost as powerful as it might have been with orchestra. Barenboim was very much the senior partner, which one would expect, but which nevertheless led to occasional underplaying of certain parts. This should not be exaggerated, though, and is in any case an extremely minor equivocation.

Barenboim also played Schoenberg’s Op.11 pieces, one of the greatest piano works of the twentieth century. Once again, he proved alert both to the pieces’ particular characteristics and to their overarching unity. One can really only sense the latter once dusk has arrived and the owl of Minerva has taken flight, but one certainly did here. The violence of the third piece was expressed as much through understanding of its compositional originality and complexity as through pianistic virtuosity, although the latter was certainly in evidence too. And the daringly slow tempo for the second piece was triumphantly vindicated by Barenboim’s Wagnerian command of line and of harmonic implication.

At the opening of the concert, we had heard Mozart’s G major variations for four hands, one piano. This was in many respects an estimable account: eminently musical and with great clarity of structure. Occasionally I thought that some of the earlier variations might have been more vividly characterised, perhaps through greater dynamic contrast. Perhaps Bashkirova and her husband should play piano duets together a little more often.

Certainly, Barenboim impressed far more in the solo piano works by Mozart that made up the second half. The C minor Fantasia received a commanding reading, one which I really could not fault. Here Barenboim drew on a far more varied dynamic palette, which partly of course reflects the nature of the work. But this was never for mere effect; dynamic and tempo variations were always in accordance with the melos of the work. The often tricky balance to be struck between structural integrity and a sense of improvisation never seemed remotely a problem on this occasion. Indeed, the dialectic between these two poles was a fruitful source of musical and dramatic tension. So as to forestall applause, Barenboim launched immediately into the C minor sonata. Whilst it is perfectly permissible to play the two works independently, it would be perverse to do so when they follow one another. This performance was every bit as fine as that of the fantasia, although unsurprisingly less improvisatory in its nature. Otherwise, it exhibited many of the same virtues. The cantabile line in the Adagio achieved the perfection that Mozart demands but so rarely receives, whilst the outer movements were not only exciting but profoundly aware of what it is – can one even begin to put it into words? – that makes Mozart in a minor key so very special. The composer’s sometimes extreme chromaticism was allowed to speak for itself: savoured but not exaggerated. We were already close enough to the Schoenberg we had heard during the first half. The tragic drive that is so very much Mozart’s own was faultlessly presented – and experienced. What a tonic after the previous night’s G minor symphony!