Tuesday 14 June 2011

Barenboim/Staatskapelle Berlin/Boulez - Wagner and Liszt, 13 June 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Wagner – A Faust Overture
Liszt – Piano Concerto no.2 in A major
Wagner – Siegfried-Idyll
Liszt – Piano Concerto no.1 in E-flat major

Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

Few would have been able to resist the lure of this programme with these performers; nor should they have done. However, the indiscriminate reaction of the audience, especially when it came to Daniel Barenboim’s performances, did no justice to a somewhat more mixed reality. I had never heard Barenboim in either of the Liszt concertos and was keen to hear what he might bring. This, at its best, was Liszt in a Beethovenian line. The manifold parallels with Beethoven’s Emperor were emphasised in his performance of the first concerto (played last). It is not merely a matter of tonality, though that is certainly an issue. Much of the piano figuration, especially that of a more filigree variety, was presented not only with Beethovenian purpose but also with a keen ear for the heavenly vistas Liszt’s revered predecessor had dared to portray. There was no doubt, moreover, even if one could imagine the performance without Pierre Boulez’s contribution, that Barenboim had the measure of Liszt’s harmonic rhythm, in terms both of its debt to Beethoven and of its mid-century breaking away from his model. This was a fine performance indeed, not least on account of Boulez’s positioning of the work’s form mid-way, as it should be, between single- and multi-movement work. For one who has conducted Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no.1 so often, a staging post such as this must command particular resonance. I am not sure that I have ever heard the scherzo sound quite so scherzo-like, for which Barenboim’s playful contribution must take a great deal of credit too. The Staatskapelle Berlin was on good form, especially its soloists. (Incidentally, was it just a trick of the acoustic, or did the triangle possess a fuller, deeper sound than is generally the case?) The first-half performance of the second concerto possessed many of the same virtues, but was let down by Barenboim’s increasingly erratic performance. Though there could be little doubt that he captured the spirit of the work, albeit in a fashion closer to Claudio Arrau than, say, to Sviatoslav Richter, passagework became jumbled and was on occasion even omitted to an extent that one could not simply ignore. Perhaps it was simply an off-day, or off-first-half: the E-flat concerto certainly suggested so. Let us hope that the promised recording confirms that to have been the case. A ruminative encore account of the first Valse Oubliée, placed somewhat awkwardly at the end of the concert, produced magic redolent of the pianist's recent Chopin, whilst remaining alert to those indelible Lisztian fingerprints such as the mysterious (Faustian?) solo lines.

Boulez’s Wagner proved quite a different matter: it was worth the price of admission alone, even at the very back of the rear stalls, the poverty of whose acoustic had slipped my mind. The Faust Overture was one of a number of Wagner works Boulez recorded in New York – well worth seeking out – but this performance was quite different from, more exploratory than, that relatively early recording. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Boulez proved alert to the Berlioz-like – whether that be a matter of influence or common influences – colouring of much of the score, keenly brought out by the Staatskapelle’s woodwind in particular. What also came across far more clearly than I can recall in any other recordings – this was my first ‘live’ hearing of the work – were the numerous, uncanny premonitions not only of harmonies and colourings to come, but even of phrases, which taken out of context could easily fit into later music dramas as well as the closer Romantic operas. Or rather, one might say, it is there that they would finally find their context, for whereas Boulez’s earlier reading is iron-clad in its tight formal structure, here he seemed interested to point to discontinuity, Adornian caesura even. Those premonitions felt almost italicised, so that one gained a greater sense of what Wagner had to leave behind in order to salvage such ‘music of the future’. More than ever, this overture stood as a companion piece to The Flying Dutchman. It is too late, doubtless, to hope that Boulez might yet conduct Wagner’s Romantic operas, but perhaps here we were vouchsafed a taste of what his modernism might bring to them: not the only approach, by any means, but a valid and intriguing approach nevertheless. This was in some ways an overture akin to the conductor's astonishing way with Mahler's Seventh Symphony, revelling in the finale's discontinuities, accentuating them, dramatising them, without unleashing a Bernstein-like house of horrors. (I recall some listeners complaining that a Boulez LSO performance did not make sense: they were half right, but failed to realise the point.)

The Siegfried-Idyll received, if anything, a still finer performance. As I heard it, striving to put to one side the coughing, shuffling, chattering, and mobile telephone calls, I thought it was probably the finest performance of this magical work I had ever heard. Now integration was the key, Boulez offering a tantalising glimpse of what the symphonies Wagner promised to compose after Parsifal might have come to resemble. (I am far from convinced that he would actually have proceeded down such a path, but that is a discussion for another time.) That Schoenberg chamber symphony again sprang to mind, but so did correspondences with works by Liszt, both the concertos heard here and other pieces. Boulez’s feel for Wagner’s melos – he admits that he has been greatly influenced not only by Wagner’s musical works but also by his writing on conducting – was so unerring that one might almost have missed it; that is to say, the music was permitted to speak, yet never anonymously. There are, after all, few stronger authorial voices than that of Richard Wagner… The serried instrumentalists of the Staatskapelle Berlin were on outstanding form, bathing the work in a warm, autumnal glow that made me wonder, and not for the first time, what Boulez might bring to Brahms if only antipathy might be overcome. Equally outstanding were the celebrated wind contributions, not only pointing to that most special of birthday celebrations, but also reminding one that Debussy lay only just around the musico-historical corner. Boulez really must re-record this work.