Friday 10 April 2009

Barenboim/Quasthoff - Winterreise, 9 April 2009

Philharmonie, Berlin

Schubert – Winterreise, D 911

The last thing I wanted to do was to review the audience for this Liederabend at the Philharmonie. Unfortunately, rather like a meddlesome stage director, it was the audience, or rather a significant section thereof, which dominated much of this performance. I realise that this might seem churlish or worse but know from subsequent conversation with several other members of the audience that their appreciation was as marred as mine by the thoughtless, indeed downright selfish, antics of a philistine minority. The only saving grace was the lack of a mobile telephone contribution; otherwise, almost every other conceivable variety of audience intrusion was present – and unrelievedly. Take the woman seated directly in front of me. (I have a good few ideas concerning where I should like to have had her taken...) Not only did she fidget and cough both during and between every song; during many, she adjusted the fur coat hanging over the balcony, jangled her bracelets, took things out of her handbag and put them back in, and so on and so forth. Try as one might, having such a person near to one makes it well nigh impossible to concentrate, especially when the music is something so intimate as Lieder. My neighbour angrily remonstrated with her at the end of the recital, showing greater courage than I could muster, but of course it was too late by then and she shamelessly shrugged it all off, preferring to continue stroking her fur coat. The coughing between songs from the audience in general was worse, I think, than I have ever heard. Still, however bad this was for the rest of the audience, it must have been worse still for the performers. Thomas Quasthoff was so annoyed and unsettled that he broke off after the seventh song, Auf dem Flusse, to request that people refrain from coughing at the end of every song. His plea was made, notably, in English, which gives a clue to the possible root cause: an influx of foreign guests able to pay the increased prices for the Holy Week Festtage, guests who were more interested in being seen than in listening. There was a slight reduction at the end of the following song but thereafter we reverted to normal practice. That Quasthoff’s announcement reflected a difficulty in his ability to concentrate and not just annoyance is attested to by the fact that, in Wasserflut, he had confusedly substituted the final stanza for the second. Even before that, he, Daniel Barenboim, and the rest of us had had to endure applause at the end of the first and fourth (!) songs, the latter halted by a furious gesture from the singer.

I regret, then, that any remarks concerning the performance must remain sketchy and provisional. It was impossible to garner much sense of the work as a whole, given the indignities it and the performers suffered. Barenboim often, though by no means always, sounded somewhat restrained, unleashing something like the full tone of the piano comparatively rarely, for instance in Der stürmische Morgen. Was the musicians’ palpable anger here not entirely unrelated to the antics in the hall? Elsewhere, Barenboim’s reading was one of great textural clarity, sometimes putting me in mind of Bach or old-school Chopin, in its voice-leading. And Schubert, after all, stands somewhere between the two. One could hear the tears in Gefrorne Tränen, to chilling effect. I almost jumped out of my skin as the cold wind of Der Lindenbaum hit my face. The pianist’s pearly-toned introduction to Frühlingstraum was only semi-audible, owing to a bronchial barrage, and I could give a host of similar examples. But Barenboim remained attentive to his musical partner, beautifully echoing in inversion Quasthoff’s line ‘Habe ja doch nichts begangen,’ in Der Wegweiser. Moreover, the grandeur of the introduction to Das Wirtshaus truly registered, rendering the deathly, all-pervading stillness that followed all the more terrifying.

Quasthoff likewise offered an almost unbelievably subtle performance, given the trying circumstances. An attentive listener – I think there were a few... – could have written a small essay devoted to the differences between his rendition of the final stanza of Gefrorne Tränen first time around and his ‘repetition’, which was anything but. Bitterness was all the more poignant for its lack of exaggeration, upon the word ‘küssen’ in Erstarrung. Judiciously applied vibrato upon the word ‘glühten’ in Rückblick truly made those two maiden eyes glow. And the darkness of tone in Die Krähe, set against Barenboim’s quietly insistent piano part, was chilling indeed. I liked the way in which, in Im Dorfe, the madness of the deserted village at that eeriest time of night was conveyed by both musicians: no melodrama, but a subtle sense of uncertainty, instability. The controlled delirium of Mut! was similar, only different. Likewise the final desolation of Der Leiermann, at which one would have felt numb, had not applause immediately intruded.

What we needed was a second performance, after a short break, in which we could all have cooled down. Ideally, it would have taken place in the more intimate setting of the Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal – the main hall, though acoustically wonderful, is really too large – and with an audience shorn of the miscreants.