Sunday, 4 April 2010

Berlin Festtage (3): Barenboim/Staatskapelle Berlin/Boulez - Webern, Schoenberg, Boulez, and Berg, 3 April 2010

Philharmonie, Berlin

Webern – Passacaglia, op.1
Schoenberg – Piano Concerto, op.42
Boulez – Improvisations sur Mallarmé, no.2
Berg – Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6

Christine Schäfer (soprano)
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

It was a little disappointing to arrive at the Philharmonie to meet with a change of programme: two of Boulez’s Improvisations sur Mallarmé having been replaced by Webern’s Passcaglia, with a subsequent re-ordering. Not that hearing Boulez conduct Webern is a disappointing prospect, but to hear more of Pli selon pli would have been more welcome still, especially with Christine Schäfer on hand. At any rate, Boulez and the Staatskapelle delivered a first-rate account of Webern’s opus one. The opening soft pizzicato chords were perfectly audible – and meaningful. It was interesting to note that the opening was slower than Boulez has often taken the work, indicative of a greater flexibility that he now seems willing to employ. Mahlerian sounds have always been present in his Webern, but this was perhaps even more the case on the present occasion. It was, moreover, remarkable quite how Viennese in tone he made the Berlin strings sound, and the Staatskapelle’s woodwind soloists proved equally ravishing. This was a splendid opening, then, to the concert.

To have Daniel Barenboim as concerto soloist, with another conductor, is now a relatively uncommon occurrence, but Barenboim’s partnership with Boulez dates back to the early 1960s. They have performed the Schoenberg concerto together a number of times; the experience told. From the very opening, there was a strong melodic profile to the piano, taken up by the orchestra, as if this were Brahms chamber music. (Is Boulez finally overcoming his dislike of Brahms?) Key to the performance’s success was a keen rhythmic spring throughout. Barenboim’s voicing ensured that the particular characteristics of Schoenberg’s piano writing, for instance octaves and his favoured harmonies, shone through, likewise the composer’s weighting of chords. Soloists from the orchestra gratefully took their opportunities to shine during the Adagio, as Boulez span the music’s sinuous lines to moving effect. It perhaps goes without saying, but should not, that conductor and pianist provided coherence of line and harmonic progression throughout the performance. There was a true sense of narrative, even if that could not be translated into words. Barenboim’s beauty of touch provided much to savour too. Schoenberg emerged, then, as once again saying ‘yes’ under trying circumstances; victory was not easy and was therefore all the sweeter when it came.

The remaining Boulez Improvisation was the second, ‘Une dentelle s’abolit’ (‘A lace abolishes itself’). He seems to relish the multivalent meanings of Mallarmé’s text just as much as conductor as he did as composer. Time emerged both suspended and in motion, whilst those ravishing sonorities were certainly given their due by the excellent Staatskapelle players. Instrumental lines sparked off one another, whilst Schäfer spun her line above. It was luxuriant yet sharp, making one wish for more.

Finally came the Berg Op.6 pieces, to which Boulez brought a lifetime of experience. And a great deal now of Mahlerian experience, too, immediately apparent in the opening of the Präludium: a sense of following on from the Ninth Symphony as music emerges from nothingness. Again, it probably goes without saying, though should not, that Boulez’s distinction between Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme was revealing throughout, likewise his weighting and placement of Berg’s climaxes. Especially during this first movement, I heard a number of telling premonitions of Wozzeck. Viennese rhythms and sonorities were once more to the fore in Reigen, but accompanied by a looseness of mooring, a sense of frightening fantasy. The solos resembled appearances by operatic characters; indeed, Lulu did not sound distant. But Wozzeck returned, its final interlude palpably close, in the conclusion. Once again, Mahlerian points were made in the final Marsch, not least that unleashing of the forces of Hell so reminiscent of the Sixth Symphony. There were occasions, though, when the rhythmic and orchestral detail of Boulez’s reading seemed to contribute to a holding of fire. The pay-off was not quite what it might have been: my sole, if important, cavil concerning a fine performance.