Music in a Time of Disaster…The Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Pierre Boulez, Carnegie Hall, January 16, 2010
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez, conductor
Carnegie Hall, January 16, 2010
Schoenberg, Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op. 38
Schoenberg, Piano Concerto, Op. 42 (Daniel Barenboim, soloist)
Webern, Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6
Mahler, Adagio from Symphony no. 10 in F-sharp Major
To hear a program of music by Mahler and the members of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern) five days after the earthquake in Haiti is to experience questions about the role that the arts, and music in particular, plays in our lives. Burke and Kant recognized two categories of artistic experience, the beautiful and the sublime, one characterized by orderliness, balance, and grace, the other by overwhelming power. Beauty is associated with the works of humans, and the sublime with the acts of nature (and/or God, depending on your persuasion). Both pieces on the second half of the Vienna Philharmonic’s program (Webern and Mahler) contained climactic moments that can only be described as devastating, as close as art can get to imparting the experience of disastrous loss. As we read the papers about the destruction of a country, we struggle to find the connection between our own lives and the unimaginable suffering and trauma being experienced by our neighbors and fellow humans. Music can help.
The previous night, the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony, a work which portrays nature as ideally beautiful, with sublimity relegated to an extra movement which portrays a brief storm. In the symphony, nature’s destructiveness is limited; its resolution is a hymn of thanksgiving that the storm is over and we are still here. But what if, after the storm, some of us are not? Does this experience also fall within the purview of music? By the early twentieth century, many artists were answering this with a decisive “Yes!” The results are a series of immensely powerful works which still raise audience hackles, and whose historical importance continues to be debated. Schoenberg and Webern heard the sounds of apocalypse in the later works of Mahler, and Mahler heard it in Schoenberg’s music that explored the transition between tonality and atonality (such as the First Chamber Symphony, op. 9 of 1906; listen to it along with the first movement of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony (1905) and you will hear the conversation developing).
What followed that transition were works at least as revolutionary as Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps,” (1913) and mostly predating it: Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, op. 16 (1909) and his student Webern’s Six Orchestral Pieces, op. 6 (1909-1913) (followed by his other student Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, op. 6 (1915). These are truly radical works despite being written a century ago, and they challenge many of the assumptions that an audience brings to the act of concert-going. (Earlier in the week, the New York Philharmonic played the Berg, and the Times reported that audience members walked out.) That the Vienna Philharmonic, a notably conservative institution, is performing this music is a gesture of ownership toward these Viennese composers, an acknowledgement that they are an essential part of the tradition which includes Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner. Their inclusion, however, must provoke us rethink the nature of that tradition.
The program notes reported that Webern’s pieces were motivated by the composer’s reactions to his mother’s death and burial. The fourth piece has an underpinning of continuous percussion (snare drum, bass drum, and tam-tam) that evokes a cosmic funeral, one not leavened with consolation. The final bars erupt with a cataclysm of grief. Webern’s music always has a quality of intimacy and purity. It is among the most concise ever written at the same time that it seems to address the largest dimensions that frame our existence. Webern was an avid student of nature; images of seeds and mountains appear as transcendent symbols in his vocal music. While the motivating experience in “Six Pieces” was the death of one particular person, its expression of grief becomes essentialized and universal. Similarly, we are told that Mahler’s final and incomplete symphony was written under the double traumas of his wife Alma’s threat to dissolve their marriage and intimations of his own mortality. But in the Adagio those emotional energies merge with Mahler’s profound experience of human vulnerability, emotional aspiration, and an interrogation of life experiences for signs of larger significance. A Shakespearean sense of tragic nobility results. The devastating climax takes the form of an unmediated minor chord played loudly by the brass choir after about twenty minutes of rich and songful development, primarily of string sonorities; that moment seems to say “Fate will not yield;” the entire orchestra responds with an enormous chord that covers the gamut of registers and which includes all the notes of the scale. This chord presents the human response to devastation, as if all one’s emotional capacities are being exercised at once. Mahler’s greatness is that he can arrive at such a climax and lead us gradually but convincingly away, back to the earlier questioning, but with a new level of acceptance tinged with resignation. The fading away ending is as heart-breaking as anything else in Mahler or any other composer, for that matter, and it feels like the only possible outcome. The style of scoring is rich and even-voiced, as if for chorus or organ. The orchestra played with a homogeneity of tone, balance, and attack that was astounding, as if a voice emanating from a single source. Even when the winds and brass joined the strings, they blended in so thoroughly that one noticed an increasingly rich tone rather than a diversified color.
The Mahler and Webern works stand on either side of the tonal-atonal divide, and the audience’s response reflected that: there was a great deal of coughing and audience noise during the Webern that (for me) broke the spell of the crucial silences that connected the musical events and which had as much expressive power as the individual instrumental events. (Webern is the master of expressive silences.) The Mahler held the audience enthralled from beginning to end with its seamless structure of development. (I’ve avoided discussing the Schoenberg works on the first half of the program first because they were written or completed at a different historical moment, and because there are issues about the performance of the Piano Concerto that need to be considered separately.) What these works share is a philosophical stance toward listening, in which music serves as a way of experiencing our feelings and our lives on a scale that transcends our individuality, and that connects us to a larger human community. It does not conform to established notions of beauty, but a new definition of beauty can emerge from it. While the music of the Second Viennese School can be harsh (along with almost every other sensuous quality you can name), it is not meaninglessly harsh; there is a structuring to experience that can necessitate and justify harshness, but it is important to hear the whole context to learn how we get there and how we move on.
Harsh is not a word that characterizes the playing or the Vienna Philharmonic. Nor does it apply to the aesthetics of Pierre Boulez as conductor or composer. The orchestral playing was deeply beautiful. Hearing this orchestra live is a very different experience from hearing it on recordings, wonderful as they are. There is a three-dimensionality to their sound; each musical event is fully formed and sculpted, in a relaxed but completely accurate way that feels fully centered. There is no push and pull; the subtle elasticity of the phrasing feels so natural that the pulse does not feel manipulated. At the same time, there is never any feeling that it is mechanical. The tonal richness and expressiveness of the solos (whether string, wind, or brass) showed attempt to stand out or to draw attention; they were rich and expressive in a way that let you know they were all coming from the same place, all part of the same musical organism. I’ve never heard such perfect balances from any other orchestra.
All this created an interesting paradox: music that addressed the tragic depths of life and that portrayed its worst catastrophes emerged in the most sensuously beautiful form. Now that I’ve used the “b” word, let’s go back to Burke and Kant. The paradox is that it is possible for music to be both beautiful and sublime, or in this case, beautifully sublime. (When you turn that around, you get something different.) That has to do with the playing: under Boulez’s baton, each note, phrase, chord, and state of feeling occurs in the right place and the right way. Boulez has such mastery that everyone playing with him can remain deeply relaxed and given over to the music itself. The beauty is one hundred superb musicians giving themselves fully to the experience of the music, moment by moment and note by note. It is realizing that underlying the tragedy is the existence of the basic sonorities of the instruments and their combinations, which imbues every sound, whether consonant or dissonant, simple or complex, with a sense of complete manifestation, almost like a Platonic ideal. It is this conjuring of beauty that should have made the audience hold its collective breath for Webern as much as for Mahler. It was one of those concerts that can be re-heard in the imagination long afterwards, and it convincingly illustrated the diversity of expression contained in all the works performed.
There was a fly in the ointment, however, and it was deeply disappointing. Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, composed in 1942 but not heard during his lifetime, is an important work in many respects, and one expected this to be an enlightening performance. Instead, it was a failure. I lay the blame directly at the feet of the pianist, Daniel Barenboim. This concerto was composed during a very fruitful time Schoenberg’s career, more or less in its most mature phase. He had developed his twelve-tone method during World War I and shortly thereafter. In the late ‘20’s and early ‘30’s, he explored its uses in larger-scale works, often using traditional forms, such as the Suite for Piano, the Wind Quintet, the Suite for Chamber Ensemble, and the Third Quartet. Although classical in form, the working out of ideas is extremely dense and hyperserious in a way that seems to justify some of the typical criticism of the composer. After his emigration in 1933, however, he began using the method no less strictly, but with a warmer, more romantic impulse; these are my favorite works and they include the Violin Concerto, the Fourth Quartet, and the Piano Concerto among others.
The Piano Concerto itself uses a form developed in the 19th century: that of a continuous single-movement work divided into sections that correspond to the standard four-movement design of classical instrumental forms. The model here could be the Liszt Piano Concerti or his mighty Piano Sonata. But Schoenberg stated that his inspiration was actually Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto. This is very interesting, because of the unique relation between soloist and orchestra found in this unique work by Brahms. In Liszt and other romantic concerti, there is a sense of competition, of the piano in some way doing battle with the orchestra. Brahms uses the piano sometimes as a solo instrument as sometimes as a concertante one, a first among equals within the orchestra. I believe this is what Schoenberg had in mind for his concerto, and this is something that the soloist seems to have totally missed in his performance.
The work starts with one of Schoenberg’s most lyrical moments, a piano solo that meditates on songful motives (actually a straight-forward statement of the 12-tone row) in moderate waltz time. It is a long and soulful melody, and the strings of the orchestra join in to intensify the mood. As happens so often in Schoenberg, the intensification morphs into a new, more energetic mood, pulling the piano along with it. This kind of mutual influence continues to flow back and forth as the music goes through a kaleidoscopic series of mood changes, ending the first section in a strongly declamatory, even peremptory way. The second section, corresponding to a scherzo (like the Brahms) continues to journey away from the lyrical serenity of the beginning, which only returns in a new form with the third section. This ends in a short solo cadenza which ushers in a sarcastic-sounding march theme that almost parodies neo-classicism. (There is a similar spot in the violin concerto where Schoenberg actually quotes the march from the third scene of “Wozzeck.”) After a climax on a major triad (!) a transformation of the opening mood appears to complete the circular journey.
What is crucial about this form is that there is continuous variation, no literal repetition, and the changes in mood and material are brought about by the mutual interaction of orchestra and soloist, who must pass the musical thread back and forth. In good performances, this happens in a smooth if not seamless way. In this one, the soloist viewed the piano’s statements as in opposition to the orchestra, and performed them in a highly subjective and assertive style with many details feeling almost improvised. The result was that the flow of the music was chopped into isolated and relatively meaningless fragments. Furthermore the soloist chose a very bright piano and used pedal to blur the harmonic and melodic detail. The solo part felt like a series of petulant outbursts, unrelated to the (beautifully played) orchestral score.
To make matters worse, the soloist then played an encore which was out of the character of the rest of the program, as if to say, you’ve had to endure all this harsh and difficult music so here is a little sugar treat as a reward. There followed Schubert’s A-flat major Impromptu op. 142 no. 2. It’s a lovely, somewhat sentimental piece that works well when played in a simple and restrained way; but here Barenboim pulled out all the stops, pushed and stretched the phrases every which way, and garnered the intended reward: a standing ovation.
The remaining work on the program was the opener and an interesting rarity. Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony (mentioned earlier) was widely noticed and influential in pointing toward atonality; it was also the second work of Schoenberg’s to weld together the traditional movements into a single, larger unity. Apparently Schoenberg immediately planned to follow up with another Chamber Symphony, and wrote a first section. However, his musical language was evolving so radically and rapidly that he put it aside to work on other things. Thirty two years later, at a time when he was returning to tonal composition, he also returned to this fragment and completed it. The result is a work that begins as a subdued and complex late tonal work, and continues as a densely-woven motivic fabric with a tonal background. The effect is like meeting yourself coming through a revolving door the other way. But more importantly, it is a subdued, complex, and difficult work to put across. The performance was apparently effortless, despite the very tight ensemble required by the intricately interwoven rhythms; Boulez, contrary to his anti-romantic reputation (which apparently persists, according to some audience members), is a true master of the lyric line: he knows how to let a melody make its own case without exaggeration or manipulation.
Mr. Boulez’s wears his musical gifts modestly; at 84 he conducts standing, using economical but crystal clear gestures, with no suggestion of wanting to push or pull the players, who are superb musicians worthy of his trust. They looked completely absorbed in the music, responding to their colleagues’s playing both visually and musically; the result was an ideal balance between the values of great orchestral playing and great chamber music.