Thursday 31 March 2016

Berlin Festtage (3) - Barenboim/Argerich, et al.: Schumann, Debussy, and Bartók, 26 March 2016


Schumann, arr. Debussy – Six Studies in Canonic Form, op.56
Debussy – En blanc et noir
Bartók – Sonata for two pianos and percussion

Daniel Barenboim, Martha Argerich (pianos)
Torsten Schönfeld, Dominic Oelze (percussion)

Schumann’s op.56 Studies were written for the pedal-piano. It would be fascinating to hear them on such an instrument, which the Schumanns had hired in order to enable them to do some organ practice. It is always a joy, however, to hear them at least in performances as good as these, in Debussy’s two-piano arrangement. The first sounded, unsurprisingly, Bachian, with the added joy of the sound ‘in itself’, well almost, of two pianos. Was there perhaps a little hint of Dr Gradus ad Parnassum? At any rate, Schumann’s own voice asserted itself gradually, imperceptibly, not unlike the nineteenth-century rediscovery of Bach himself (at least as the myth has it). The second and third studies sounded instantly more Romantic, instantly more Schumannesque. The quiet musical delight Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich summoned up from intertwining of the parts could barely have sounded, in the Romantic sense, more ‘characteristic’. The second’s wistfulness was revisited in the fourth, canon proving a properly poetic starting-point rather than an end in itself. Then we heard a stormier impetus, speaking of Schumann’s Classical inheritance. The pianists judged to near perfection to the good humour and the sterne passages in the fifth study, which rightly remained enigmatic. Finally, the sixth flowed beautifully, as rich in performance as on the page, as rich in its inner parts as in the harmonies they helped create. And yes, Bach was reinstated, as if this were a late Chorale Prelude recomposed.

Debussy’s En blanc et noir followed. Whatever the historical facts, this sounded unambiguously here as music for Steinways. We heard in the first movement, and not only there, the composer’s Lisztian roots, but also something that was somehow both glassier and more aquatic. There was similar delight as in the Schumann to the interplay between the two instruments. How fresh, and yet how knowing, the scales sounded in context. The second movement, marked Lent, was dark, almost Gaspard-like. Debussy here seemed to look forward to Messiaen, even to Boulez. But he was rightly never to be pinned down, likewise any ‘meaning’ in the appearances of Ein’ feste Burg. Indeed, the strangeness of that chorale in context put me in mind of a Gallic Ives, if you can imagine such a thing. The finale was similarly yet differently enigmatic; it was sardonic, yet loved and lovable.

Torsten Schönfeld and Dominic Oelze joined Argerich and Barenboim for Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. Schönfeld and Oelze certainly had nothing to fear from comparisons in such exalted company; indeed, if anyone were at times a little heavy-handed, or at least less fleet, it was Barenboim. That should not be exaggerated, however. The menace of the first movement’s opening registered properly; this was musical menace, with nothing of the banally filmic to it. The shock of the first outburst registered with at least equal strength. Percussion and percussionists alike sounded – and this is surely Bartók’s plan – emancipated by the pianos’ crescendo. There was no doubting that these were equal musical partners rather than purveyors of mere ‘effect’. Progress was built slowly, surely, above all dramatically, in the second movement. Likewise regress – and all manner of other musical operations, sometimes rather less slowly. The finale opened more as a sonata for two percussionists with pianos offering support. Interchange and transformation were thereafter the name of the game.

If Barenboim were not always on top pianistic form in the Bartók, he certainly was, as was Argerich, in the first of no fewer than five (!) encores. I do not intend to discuss them all, ‘free gifts’ ranging from Mozart (twice), through Tchaikovsky-Pletnev (‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy) and Rachmaninov (hardly Barenboim territory, and he did sound a little stretched), to an Argentinian piece both pianists had apparently played for solo piano, newly arranged for two pianos. However, the first, the slow movement to the D major Sonata, KV 448/375a, was as profound as it was delectable: a model performance, well judged in every respect.