Monday 30 March 2015

Berlin Festtage (1) - Schütz/VPO/Barenboim - Boulez and Schubert


Boulez – Livre pour cordes
Schubert – Symphony no.9 in C major, ‘Great’, D 944

Karl-Heinz Schütz (flute)
Christina Bauer, Noid Haberl (electronics)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

No encore, although the audience would clearly have liked one; more to the point, there was a non-advertised late addition to the programme at the beginning. Daniel Barenboim came to the podium and announced that the concert would begin with the Air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D major, BWV 1068. Beautiful without affectation, it was a more eloquent mark of respect to those who had lost their lives in the German Wings aeroplane crash than any words. It was not a performance to be ‘reviewed’, but it should be noted.

The Vienna Philharmonic strings then launched more or less immediately – though not without unwanted applause, dealt with admirably by Barenboim – into Boulez’s Livre pour cordes. Barenboim’s reading proved, like his Wagner and much else, both spacious and keenly dramatic. I was struck how close the music sounded at times to Bartók. The players, coaxed into playing ‘New Music’, offered crucial subtlety in dynamic gradation and transition; to give an example, the eight double basses’ pizzicato playing was not only admirable in its unanimity but in its acceleration of impetus, driving the music forward just as it might in Beethoven. The piece emerged almost as if a tone poem (of ‘absolute music’).

Mémoriale benefited from another performance of what one might call warm precision: very much akin with much of Boulez’s own later conducting work. Perfect coordination between the magnificent flautist, Karl-Heinz Schütz, and the Vienna strings – interplay and counterpoint, echoes and collision – led us into a beguiling labyrinth indeed. The subtle yet crucial contribution of the horns should also be noted, not least at the end, fading exquisitely into nothingness. Those horns – and their players, or their instruments, according to one’s understanding! – then moved to the other side of the stage, quickly joined by other wind instruments. Two more flautists stood on either side, awaiting the return of Schütz and Barenboim for Originel. But first, Barenboim said a few words, explaining that we should now hear the same material in another Besetzung, referring to Boulez’s love for complexity and kinship both with Mahler and the orchestral Notations. (Difficult to argue with any of that!) The pairing proved genuinely rewarding, both for the mind and the senses. From the presence of clarinets at the opening, soon joined by electronics (Christina Bauer and Noid Haberl, developed and realised at IRCAM), and then the first of the two additional flute Kinder (Barenboim’s term), similarity and difference not only presented themselves but ravished. I wished I could have heard it all again, and that we might have heard any number of other potential versions.

Whilst the connection with Schubert was not overt, the care that Barenboim took to make ‘New’ Music classical and ‘old’ music new was once again clear; so was the superlative playing of the VPO. The introduction to the first movement sounded simply glorious, but more than that, it proved in spirit quite the most Furtwänglerian account I have heard in concert. There was, needless to say, none of that absurd ‘same tempo as the exposition’ nonsense. This was an experience that was mystical in the best sense. The Vienna horns, the oboe, pretty much everything – all sounded to die for. Even the depth of the violas’ sound could not help but strike, could not help but draw one in to the incipient, inexorable drama. But there was no more wallowing in beauty for its own sake than there had been in Boulez. Dark menace was a hallmark of the strings throughout the movement, always in alliance with harmonic motion; indeed, as time went on, the ghost of Klemperer sounded almost as present as that of Furtwängler, just as in much of Barenboim’s recent Beethoven. And indeed there was an almost Beethovenian purpose to the course of the movement, tension between and beneath the notes inescapable. What struck me at the end of the coda was not ‘heavenly length’ but apparent concision.

The Andante con moto was perfectly judged, both parts of the tempo marking honoured. If the oboe solo was undoubtedly exquisite, so were contributions from all of the woodwind. So too was the string playing, sounding new in the light of the Boulez works. Barenboim’s build up to the great climax was both Brucknerian and not, never uncharacteristic. I was left feeling bereft and yet, in the light of the cellos’ song in aftershock, also (potentially) reconciled. The Scherzo’s opening material was played with rustic swagger: more than the odd reminiscence of Haydn. Line, orchestral balance, and, not least, grace were equal partners in crime here. Grace certainly suffused the lovely, yet never too lovely, Trio. It relaxed – out of symphonic necessity. And yet, the harmony ever pushed us forward. There could be no arguing with the heft of the finale, nor, more importantly, with its tension and release. This was a finale truly worthy of the name. It was not only that its thrills were both visceral and intellectual; the performance showed that the two could not be separated. Likewise motivic life in inner parts and the grinding harmonic motion in the bass. If there has been a greater performance of this symphony since Colin Davis in Dresden, maybe even since Karl Böhm, I have not heard it.