Saturday 21 November 2015

Perahia/COE/Haitink - Schumann, 20 November 2015

Grosser Saal, Musikverein

Manfred, op.115: Overture
Piano Concerto in A minor, op.54
Symphony no.2 in C major, op.61

Murray Perahia (piano)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

As safe bets go, this all-Schumann programme, with these musicians, would probably have veered toward the extreme end of safe. Yet, however heightened the expectations, they were not to be disappointed by performances whose supreme musicality delighted and edified from beginning to end. The golden acoustic – it really does sound more or less as it looks, albeit without the questionable ornamentation that must have given Adolf Loos severe palpitations – of the Musikverein’s Grosser Saal did no harm either, of course, although the chattering pair of girls behind me certainly did. No number of hard stares seemed to be enough; why do these people bother going?

I am not sure that I have ever heard the Manfred Overture in concert before; if I have, I have forgotten the experience, which forgetfulness might well speak for itself. We rarely, if ever, hear the complete incidental music: a great pity, but then much the same can be said of a good deal of Schumann’s music. At any rate, Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe had nothing to fear from the most exalted of comparisons. Indeed, whilst the orchestra was of course smaller, though not at all too small, and Haitink’s way is not Furtwängler’s – whatever the inspiration, neither is Barenboim’s – the darkness of tone Furtwängler drew from the Berlin Philharmonic did not always sound so distant. The extraordinary drama of such a performance, sounding with no exaggeration as if everyone’s life depended on it, is doubtless unrepeatable, just as no one could or should imitate Furtwängler in the Ninth. However, if the orchestral lines did not ‘speak’ quite like that – how could they do? – there was a noticeable, parallel kinship with Wagner. Two of the very greatest of Wagner conductors, and moreover, two of the very greatest Walküre conductors, impart their different varieties of musico-dramatic eloquence to the same score. Those Neapolitan sixth chords tell so much – which might perhaps resist the attempt to put it into words – because the crucial importance of harmony and, above all, harmonic rhythm is present throughout. It is that greatest wonder of Western music, harmony, which shapes the melodic, almost verbal, contours above. We feel again the loss, Genoveva notwithstanding, of Schumann as opera composer – even if, perhaps particularly if, it could never really have been. And the playing of the COE was just as committed as the Berlin Philharmonic: whether the Freischütz-like brass, the vernal woodwind, or the strings, whose every note pulsed with life – life, which Furtwängler, in his echt-Romantic way, distinguished in his notebooks from ‘vitality’, a second order virtue, longing for something already gone. Ours is largely a secondary lot, or sometimes it seems, but without grandstanding, Haitink and the COE permitted this neglected masterpiece to shine as itself.

The Piano Concerto is of course, a different animal. No one could call it neglected; indeed, it is the sort of work I only really wants to hear in a great performance, since otherwise one might just as well return at home to the great recordings of the past. Well, this was a great performance of the present. If I say that the work appeared simply to speak for itself, the claim stands open to objection in any number of ways. ‘Appeared’, ‘simply’, etc. The art that conceals art is in many respects the greatest and most difficult art of all. But there was a wisdom here born not only of lengthy experience, but also surely of the renewed delight in treating again with a masterpiece: finding new things, no doubt, but also, I suspect, finding old things and letting them speak, or sing, anew. Haitink and the orchestra offered the most impeccable of balance, lines weighted as if we were hearing, say, Boulez subtly and yet unmistakeably bring to the surface a Bergian Hauptstimme. Yet beneath that surface, again, lay harmony. So too, it did with Perahia, whose renowned love for Schenker was clearly in evidence. And yet, individual lines sang with Mozartian eloquence, the eloquence of a Mozart piano concerto in which the ‘purely’ vocal has been aufgehoben. A right-hand melody, in which the shadows deepened, lifted, or perhaps in which our standpoint upon them shifted, was crafted in the most apparently ‘natural’ of ways, just as it would be from the outstanding COE woodwind. Transitions, such as that from the Intermezzo from the finale, were a model of their kind, uniting every one of those virtues listed above. Moreover, not the least virtue of the finale would be when a Brahmsian piano chord revealed through its voicing the potentialities of a future later still. Perahia is not noted as an exponent of Schoenberg; indeed, I recall an interview in which he admitted ruefully that he did not understand twelve-note music. This, however, made me long to hear Perahia, Haitink, and – why not? – the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in a performance of that composer’s piano concerto. They might even give Uchida and Boulez a run for their money. Such was not, however, my final thought: that lay with the jubilation of warm, radiant, Musikverein A major: a Romantic battle had been lovingly won.

Haitink’s performance of the Second Symphony was to be no less distinguished. (It would by this stage have been surprising indeed, if it had.) Both of the earlier works are in many, although not all, respects ‘symphonic’ of their kind; this, however, was the ‘real thing’, as it were. What struck me – and I might have expected it, but experiencing it in the flesh can surprise one even with the unsurprising – was the structural grasp Haitink and his players displayed not only of each movement but of the symphony as a whole. That was not to paint each movement or indeed each paragraph, each phrase even, in similar shades. There was certainly diversity in unity, and vice versa, here. Again, I think of those chords from the piano concerto, with seeds not only of the future I mentioned, but also, of course, of the past, Bach in particular. Bach is, not without reason, often invoked in discussions of the first movement, but for me, Beethoven is just as important, perhaps more so. Moreover, there is kinship – I am not quite so sure that it is ‘influence’, but that is neither here nor there – with Wagner too. Such aspects were readily apparent, perhaps all the more so for the lack of underlining. Haitink, whatever he might be, is certainly not an ‘underliner’. (I imagine with horror what some of those intent on arbitrarily pulling around symphonic structures would have done with, or rather to, this.) Once again, the freshness, the exhilaration of the COE’s response was a joy in itself, not that it could or should have been heard merely ‘in itself’. The scherzo dazzled, not in a flashy way – again, can one imagine a less ‘flashy’ conductor? – but through the unleashing of kinetic, Mendelssohnian, above all profoundly musical energy. There was nothing sentimental to the slow movement, but nor was it treated in the perfunctory way that some, eager to avoid charges of sentimentality, will inflict upon it. Phrase upon phrase unfolded, almost as if in a poetry reading, until the dam broke and the high yet not un-tortured spirits of the finale flowed, like the Rhine itself. Beethoven again seemed a guiding but not an overbearing inspiration; Schumann spoke for himself.