Sunday, 31 January 2010

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Beethoven and Schoenberg (2), 31 January 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op.4
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73, ‘Emperor’

Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor)
Staatskapelle Berlin

This had the makings of a very special concert, though a succession of mishaps in the finale of the Emperor Concerto would certainly have detracted from a ‘star rating’, were one to engage in such assessment. Nevertheless, Verklärte Nacht and much of the Beethoven received fine performances.

The orchestral version of Verklärte Nacht is gorgeous, though I tend to miss the clarity and ensuing emphasis upon the work’s Brahmsian structure of the original sextet. It is testimony to the quality of this performance from Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin that not once did I think in such terms whilst the music was being heard. Barenboim’s account married the advantages of a huge body of strings (from eight double basses upwards) to the persistence of a chamber-style give and take between parts. Though definitely a conducted performance, the players’ accomplishment seemed at least as much a consequence of careful listening to and reacting to one another. Solos were all very well taken. The conductor’s role was almost that of the narrator, moulding the musical events into a consistent musico-dramatic narrative, rather as he had in the performance two nights previously of Pelleas und Melisande. Perhaps the pause before the advent of D major was a little de trop, but I am nit-picking. Far more noteworthy was the beautifully judged ebb and flow Barenboim ensured, with respect both to shorter-term rubato and longer-term tempo fluctuations: never attention-seeking but always telling. The final Verklärung worked the necessary magic. This was a distinguished performance indeed.

So was much of the Beethoven. From the outset, orchestra and pianist/conductor produced just the right sort of heroic, Beethovenian sonority and attack. The distance travelled from the first concerto was plain for all to hear. Barenboim employed a slightly larger body of strings than he had for the earlier work, though not so very much so, with twelve, as opposed to ten, first violins and others scaled accordingly. Urgent without sounding hectic, there was always life within the phrases, which in turn always responded to their predecessors. Some might have considered the rubato deferring the opening of the recapitulation exaggerated, but in heightening the sense of return, it played a structural role. As soloist, Barenboim displayed the occasional fallibility, but in the face of such conviction and the quality of his touch, that mattered little. The hush in the cadenza that is not a cadenza was quite magical, as was the Romantic sounding of horns thereafter. The wonderful veiled quality to the strings at the opening of the slow movement was most certainly special, as was the songfulness characteristic of the movement as a whole: if not taming the Furies, Orpheus was nevertheless amongst us. There was some truly melting piano playing, ensuring that this proved the emotional centre of the work. The orchestra’s woodwind solos were equally worthy of mention.

I was, then, a little surprised to hear the finale commence in a fashion that over-emphasised the bar lines. This is a very difficult movement to bring off, but in the face of what had gone before, I was in little doubt that Barenboim would do so. Had that been my only reservation, I might have forgotten it by now, but the soloist unleashed a series of errors suggestive of a memory lapse. Barenboim is good at covering, but even he could not conceal what had happened, nor could he prevent the orchestra from - understandably - losing its way. The Emperor really needs a separate conductor – even, it would seem, when a conductor of Barenboim’s calibre is at the keyboard. There was a greater level of general untidiness in his despatch of the solo part too. Though the orchestra often sounded magnificent, recovery could only ever be partial. The bassoonist’s prayer was clearly answered, though, given the aplomb with which he carried off his notorious, well-nigh impossible solo. What disconcerted most of all, however, was that a movement that had verged upon breaking down completely was followed by a widespread standing ovation. I cannot imagine that I yield to many in my admiration of Daniel Barenboim, and there remained much to admire in the concert as a whole, but a standing ovation? It rather suggests that many in the audience are simply experiencing the ‘event’ and barely listening to the performance.


John Babb said...

Mark, I think you have a simplistic view of what produces a standing ovation - many factors affect this and often there is a psychological element to it . Sometimes a standing ovation may not be deserved on the basis of the performance or it may be produced out of some facile, celebrity nonsense.
In this case, one suspects it was produced out of respect for what Barenboim has done over a period of years. Slip or not, his Beethoven playing is special.

Mark Berry said...

John, I take your point in practical terms. Of course it is not straightforwardly an assessment of the performance. (Can anything be, given the expectations, preconceptions, etc., we all bring?) It just seemed to me that in a particular case, which involved not just slips, though there were quite a few of them, but something at least pretty close to a falling to pieces, the reaction seemed at best misplaced. Or rather, it seemed less misplaced than a consequence of not having listened to what had gone on. I did not have any sense that most of the people standing had taken the attitude that they were overlooking what had happened; they simply seemed - and goodness knows how - oblivious to it.

I cannot begin to imagine how many standing ovations Barenboim must have received during his career, so he must be more than used to such reactions by now. However, I feel sorry for him if this happens when he is not on form, since he must wonder whether responses on other occasions actually signify anything at all.

The good news, anyway, is that last night's performance of the Fourth really did deserve a standing ovation.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more here, I was there and asked my friend whether the third movement of the Emperor warranted standing ovation. I think, just for the Schoenberg and the second movement of the Emperor (which was sublime), such applause would be due, but the overall concert was somewhat marred by the somewhat confused finale.