Tuesday 21 April 2015

Argerich/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Beethoven and Strauss, 20 April 2015

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.1 in C major, op.15
Strauss – Ein Heldenleben

Martha Argerich (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Sixth time lucky! My most recent attempt to hear Martha Argerich ‘live’ had proved yet another failure; I admit my patience had worn somewhat thin. All could be forgiven, however, after this wonderful performance. So often in concerto performances, one has to fill in much of the solo part for oneself: not that it is not being played, but it does not necessarily cut through the orchestra as it might. There was no such problem here: there was certainly some forceful playing, as befits the all-too-easy (and perhaps a little sexist) ‘tigress’ tag. There were several passages in the first movement I have never heard come across with such clarity and dynamism. Intimacy, however, was just as crucial, not least in the hushed confidences of the slow movement. Here, chamber music, truly ravishing woodwind playing every bit a match for the silken Staatskapelle Berlin strings, was not so much writ large – for one was compelled to listen with the intensity demanded by a late Beethoven quartet, or a work by Luigi Nono – as quiet, triumphant conqueror of the symphonic domain. Listen to Argerich’s repeated notes, her passage work, her voicing, and you forget that they are such: they are music, and sounded as such. And the Haydn-like skittishness with which she played, and played with, the rondo theme was in itself a masterclass in musical re-creation. Articulation, phrasing, character, direction: all have some basis in the score, but go far beyond it. In Beethoven, a performer is no mere executant; his or her duties are far more onerous than that. One must speak for humanity – and here all concerned did just that.

Daniel Barenboim is, himself, of course no mean Beethovenian; all but the wildest-eyed ‘authenticists’ would now recognise him as probably the greatest living Beethoven conductor, whilst his performances of the sonatas are equally distinguished. And this was as true a partnership as one could hope for: not to forget the superlative playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin. (What a contrast with the tired anonymity of the Berlin Philharmonic in this hall a couple of months earlier!) Barenboim and Argerich alike ensured that form was not mere ‘structure’, but properly dynamic, founded upon harmonic rhythm: surely the most crucial aspect of performing any Beethoven work, although far too many conductors seem quite unaware of it. Barenboim’s Furtwänglerian credentials by now need no polishing; he can simply take, acknowledged, what he needs from tradition, above all the crucial ability, long lost by so many conductors, to maintain a line, to hear a movement, a work as a whole, whilst remaining very much of the present; not for nothing is he now also one of our most prominent and distinguished performers of the music of Schoenberg, Boulez, and Carter. The long-standing partnership between conductor and orchestra enables Barenboim to play it almost as if it were a piano – just as he can now play the piano (when he practices) almost as if it were an orchestra.

There followed an extremely generous encore: Barenboim and Argerich in duet for Schubert’s Rondo in A major, D 951. I confess that I do not think I had heard it before, and am not entirely convinced that such music is really ‘concert-hall music’, but then much the same could be said for a good deal of the music we hear in concert. Argerich proved the considerably stronger pianist, Barenboim occasionally skating over passages. (I checked the score afterwards.) But that is to nit-pick: it remained a privilege to hear, and indeed to see, such a musical gathering, to eavesdrop upon shared intimacies. Moreover, the sonority of four-handed Schubert was present throughout: spot on, effortlessly so, or so it seemed. What a pity, then, that an especially thoughtless audience member not only had his mobile telephone go off, but steadfastly refused to turn it off, instead glowering at those who turned to plead with him. A life-time ban would be too good for such a selfish person. Not that those who, all around me, insisted on taking photographs during the Beethoven performance were much better. Some, noticeably, did not even bother to return for the second half.

What a treat they missed, though. ‘Symphonic’ is arguably a word overused, or rather not closely defined enough. For most of us, it is a word of approbation, which signals seriousness, whether in a Strauss tone poem or a Puccini opera, although of course it was not always intended as such when used by Puccini’s critics. However, it is difficult to avoid using it with respect to this performance of Ein Heldenleben, although ‘musico-dramatic’ would doubtless be equally valid, and point to other, related virtues. Barenboim began swiftly; this is surely one of the most difficult, even impossible, of openings, not so much in itself as because it can so readily over-shadow what is to come. Tempi generally broadened as the performance progressed – and deepened. This was a masterly recreation of a score, which in the right hands, as here, becomes just as much a commentary upon memory and indeed recreation itself as Der Rosenkavalier. Incident was not minimised, but it was always integrated – just as in the very different, more conventionally ‘symphonic’ symphonism of Bernard Haitink. The long line was just as important here as in Beethoven, though quite rightly, it was often very different in character. Where Beethoven looks forward, Strauss often, though not exclusively, seemed to look back: this is, after all, the telling of a life that has happened. Daringly slow to the end, as if recalling the slow of the movement of the Beethoven concerto, chamber music was once recreated, indeed almost created, before our very ears. Irony was present – many listeners still seem not to appreciate this, much to the rest of our bafflement! – but it was loving irony. Even the critics could take their place within the grander scheme of things; perhaps they even, on occasion, might have helped.

Here again, the orchestral sound was simply gorgeous. It is difficult not to lapse into well-worn cliché, but I am not sure that I have heard more golden-hued strings, even in Vienna or Dresden. The woodwind section provd equally distinguished in solos and en masse, Strauss’s adoration for Mozart readily apparent even at this stage in his career. (Barenboim himself is, of course, a great Mozartian.) The brass was as mellow as I can recall hearing, even in Barenboim’s Wagner. And the harps! I cannot recall them ever cutting through Strauss’s orchestral textures with such clarity and such warmth: no mere ‘effect’, but musically crucial. The leader's solo passages were as sweet as they were warm, as perfectly phrased as they were imbued with genuine character. Perhaps, like Strauss himself, the performers – and we – did not want the work to end. There are, at least on occasion, worse sins than slight lingering; indeed, in the present case, it is surely written into the work. This, then, was a concert long to remember.