Tuesday 24 July 2012

Prom 13: WEDO/Barenboim (4) - Beethoven and Boulez, 24 July 2012

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.8 in F major, op.93
Boulez – Anthèmes 2
Beethoven – Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

Michael Barenboim (violin)
IRCAM live electronics
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

My friend Théo Bélaud (if you do not know his site, le petit concertorialiste, then you should!) sent me a message just before this concert started, saying how highly he thought of Daniel Barenboim’s recording of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony with the Staatskapelle Berlin: one of the few modern conductors to take the work seriously, he said. I also think highly of it and, amongst modern-ish recordings, I can only think of competition – the wrong word, I know – from Karajan’s final version, Sir Colin Davis in Dresden, and, as ever, the perennially underrated, overlooked, or simply ignored, Michael Gielen. (It is only the Ninth in Gielen’s cycle I find impossible to warm to, but then I have yet to find anyone, not even Klemperer, who is not found wanting next to Furtwängler; every other Gielen performance has something interesting, revealing, to say.)  Barenboim certainly took the Eighth seriously on this occasion, and it emerged as a far weightier, even greater work than many in the audience will doubtless have expected. There is no one ‘correct’ way to perform the work, of course, and the idea of a neo-Classical, slightly-backward, slightly-stylised glance can work well: witness the aforementioned Karajan performance. (I am sorry if that proves a red rag to any bulls.) Not for nothing, after all, was this a symphony Stravinsky greatly admired. That said, Barenboim’s treating the Eighth as a successor to the Seventh – to come, of course – rather than a different path was utterly convincing. Indeed, it made me wonder whether the understandable reversal of order in terms of programming was really necessary. Certainly the first movement was muscular, concentrated, poised very much on the cusp of ‘middle’- and ‘late’-period Beethoven, not unlike its fellow awkward-squad piece, the op.95 Quartett serioso, if undeniably more genial. Once again, it was impossible not to appreciate how much was missing in so much recent Beethoven performance, how a performance in which sonata form was properly dynamic – for one thing, the development developing – has, sadly, tragically even, become a rare bird in a positivist, or often merely would-be-positivist, age. (Is it possible to think of a composer more inimical to positivism than Beethoven?!) What Beethoven thought of the metronome was made abundantly clear in a magical account of the second movement. Such strictness, such restriction, is to be treated humorously; the joke relies upon it being anything but the norm. If here Beethoven remained very much a son of Haydn, his Mozartian heritage came far more strongly to the fore than one generally hears in the ravishing minuet. Its richness, almost labyrinthine, evoked models in Mozart’s late symphonies, likewise the woodwind writing, much praised by Stravinsky, and which the Divan players communicated so beautifully. The ‘difficulty’ of the finale was not resolved; it never should be. One needs to listen here; as Hans Keller remarked, it is easy until one does. A dynamism that related to form rather than formalism was Barenboim’s gift to this performance, the conclusion both succinct and resplendent, an apt description of both symphony and performance.  

I heard Michael Barenboim perform Anthèmes 2 in Berlin, in a Boulez eighty-fifth birthday concert. A little more than two years on, he seemed, after a slightly understated opening, to be more confident, as one might expect. There could certainly be no gainsaying his command of the score, and the tonal palette on which he drew seemed to have broadened considerably; if I might speak in terms of colours for a moment, one narrative one might trace, or invent, would be that of transmuting silver into gold. And again, what a revelation the Royal Albert Hall provides in terms of electronics. As with Jussef Eisa’s performance of Dialogue de l’ombre double, one might have thought the piece written for the hall, which one can say about few other musical works. Serial writing can rarely have sounded not only so inviting, but, in terms correspondent to Boulez’s æsthetic, so open-ended. Not for the first time, I thought of Nietzsche’s words in The Gay Science: ‘Indeed, we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone upon us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea”.’ Whatever post-modern sirens might say, whether with respect to Beethoven or Boulez, that sea is still open, if only we should have the courage to set sail.

The Seventh Symphony bore out that observation admirably. The introduction to the first movement took all the time it needed, and not one second longer. More importantly, it and the movement, indeed the symphony, as a whole, left one in no doubt that Beethoven – and Barenboim – knew where it was headed, without the slightest suspicion of pathways being closed off. All was obvious, deceptively simple, after the event; the owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk. Rhythmic impetus ran in tandem with its harmonic sister, Wagner’s misleadingly quoted description of the ‘apotheosis of the dance’ disproved, if one knew the Opera and Drama context from which it is generally wrenched. Where Wagner saw ‘individual’ arts wrested from one another, in need of recombination, Beethoven showed, especially with our hindsight of the previously heard Eighth, that not all roads lead to the ‘Word’ of the Ninth. Wagnerian music-drama is but one option ahead, though Barenboim intriguingly highlighted, consciously or otherwise, the extent to which there is common ground between apparently rather different methods of motivic working. The Allegretto, taken attacca, was swifter than Furtwängler would have taken it, but was possessed of a similar command of line. Once again, the way in which Beethoven transformed (French Revolutionary) processional into something of more metaphysical import was only something at which we could marvel, or rather which we could fully experience. The harmonic plan was both revealingly simple and deeply felt; no wonder Schopenhauer was led to the conclusions he drew about music as representation of the Will, and no wonder Wagner, disciple of both, followed suit, if ambiguously. A good test of a performance of the Seventh is whether the second return of the scherzo seems a little much. No such problem here, for not only was the relationship between scherzo and trio perfectly paced – no nonsense of barely slowing here – the playing was so alert, so responsive, that details one had undoubtedly heard before sounded newly-minted. Though the finale lacked nothing in vigour, there was none of the coldness or galumphing that all too often disfigures lesser performances. Form was clearly delineated or, better, dramatically presented, crowned by a coda all the more exciting for its organic, truly Furtwänglerian lineage.