Boulez and Barenboim conduct the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Wagner and Beethoven

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Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, 1948. Photo Florence Homolka.

Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, 1948. Photo Florence Homolka.

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim, Conductor
Carnegie Hall, January 15, 2010

Beethoven, Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”
Wagner, Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31
Encore: J. Strauss Jr., Unter Donner und Blitz, Op. 324

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez, Conductor
Daniel Barenboim, Piano
Carnegie Hall, January 16, 2010

Schoenberg, Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op. 38
Schoenberg, Piano Concerto, Op. 42
Webern, Six Pieces, Op. 6
Mahler, Adagio from Symphony No. 10 in F-sharp Major
Encore (after piano concerto): Schubert, Impromptu in A-flat Major, D. 935, No. 2

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim, Conductor
Carnegie Hall, January 17, 2010

Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra
Pierre Boulez, Notations I, II, III, IV and VII
Beethoven, Symphony No. 5

Schoenberg and his two most famous pupils, Webern and Berg, appear to be everywhere this season, receiving the most polished performances by the most distinguished musicians and ensembles. This is a somewhat absurd understatement when one speaks of the likes of Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Serkin, Alan Gilbert, John Harbison, David Hoose, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, and, soon, James Levine, but polish and musicianly mastery are the bare minimum for this uncompromising music, which is difficult for the players and, at least by reputation, for the audience. It is important to realize, however, that once performances are as plentiful and as excellent as they have been in New York and Boston over the past few months, the difficulty for the listener seems miraculously diminished. I’m sure all of these conductors have given serious thought to making this body of great works accessible and appealing to concert-goers, and all of these performances have been eminently accessible, with no trace the smoothing-over or dumbing-down. All of these programs have placed the Second Vienna School in a retrospective context, encouraging these early twentieth-century giants to converse with their predecessors in a civilized way—not in intellectual shoptalk or with rude, revolutionary blustering. Sir Simon sat Schoenberg next to Brahms; Peter Serkin with Debussy, Chopin, Wuorinen, and Kurtág; Gilbert situated Webern with Mozart and Schumann, and Berg with Haydn and Schubert. Now Barenboim and Boulez have presented a systematic cycle of three concerts in which Schoenberg, Webern, and Boulez himself are framed by Beethoven’s two great middle-period symphonies. Several years ago, James Levine organized a series of concerts around the pairing, or intertwining, of the music of Beethoven and Schoenberg, and the Vienna Philharmonic’s three-concert series has just shown that the last word about their posthumous historical partnership has not yet been said.

Even as they tuned, the orchestra projected great reserves of sonic power, a harbinger of the massive, blended sound Barenboim desired for Beethoven’s symphonic evocation of country life, which combines both a sense of vivid life-impressions, expressed by occasional imitative passages, as well as a consistently argued symphonic process, as if Beethoven had deliberately set out to create a dialectical reconciliation, or fusion, of programmatic and absolute music. Barenboim clove to the absolute, avoiding any marring of the gorgeous Vienna timbre through the mimicking of peasant instruments, and never letting us forget, even for a bar, that we were listening to one of the great monuments of western music. Everything—the composer’s arrival and his attendant cheerful feelings, his lyrical reflections by the brook, the peasant dance, and the storm—all point forward to the shepherd’s song, expressing his joyful and grateful feelings as the storm clouds pass, in Barenboim’s interpretation almost a hymn. The rich blend of the instrumental choirs enabled Barenboim to make the most of the rich sonorities for which the Vienna Philharmonic is renowned without burying the inner voices. And it is gratifying enough to contemplate that this unique quality—as well as the virtuosity and musicality of the individual players—survives in glorious health and vigor. This generalized, reverent approach may seem a trifle old-fashioned today, but I was content to accept it for what it was—a firm and clear statement that Maestro Barenboim had decided to take the high road in these performances. Beethoven and his twentieth century epigoni were to meet on a lofty Platonic level, where pure music lifts our consciousness above any raw experiential impressions, whether it is the glistening of water on the stones in a brook, the stumbling of a drunken peasant, or the rasping of a countrified bassoon. The most impressive quality of Barenboim’s interpretation was his rock-solid conception of the shape and proportions of the symphony, and he brought this across without any undue emphasis or overt attempt to imitate his old hero, Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose spirit was not entirely absent nonetheless.

In a change from the originally announced program the second half began with Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, leaving Schoenberg to conclude the evening. Of course everyone, above all Daniel Barenboim, knew what would happen, if there were nothing to keep the audience in their seats until the end…but more of that later. And Tristan is a great calling-card for Barenboim in New York, following his well-deserved triumph at the Met last year. Since the nature and function of the concert excerpts is quite different from the virtually identical music which opens and closes the opera, I would not have expected his approach to be anything like what he did in the pit. I was not disappointed. Beginning with delicate pianissimi, incomparable in timbre and articulation, as the Viennese played it, he built it up into a massive symphonic climax that made Tristan and Isolde’s yearnings for love and death into a cosmic event. The sheer volume and size of the orchestral tutti was both astonishing—and hence somewhat befremdend—and overpowering. I couldn’t help wondering if it wasn’t overblown—something that never occurred to me at the Met, but Wagner’s vision was sufficiently far-reaching to support it, and the color and eloquence of the playing more than carried it through. Without the magnificent contribution of one of the great orchestra and without Barenboim’s meticulous attention to detail this grand concept could have lapsed into bombast, but it happily did not. I was persuaded by it for the most part, but that doesn’t inhibit me from remembering fondly Leon Botstein’s far more modest performance of the same work in Wagner’s original arrangement this past summer at the Bard Festival. In that performance, Botstein, keen for the audience to hear the music and the way it was put together, adopted a restrained, sober treatment, which in the end was deeply involving.

At the highly enlightening Bard Music Festival last summer, there was much discussion of the way in which Wagner, after very carefully designing his excerpts for concert performance, used them to promote his works, to build intense interest in them, as he labored at the Herculean task of funding full operatic performances. As his works became established in the opera house, the excerpts, often in a rather different form created by others, found a steady place not only in the concert hall, but at band concerts in the open air and in cafés. Piano reductions enjoyed perhaps enjoyed the widest currency of all, until vocal and orchestral excerpts could be squeezed onto 78 rpm sides. Today, now that not only all of Wagner’s major works are available on CDs and DVDs, and complete, and in multiple versions, the meaning of these excerpts, much less frequently performed than in the past, must necessarily have changed. For Barenboim, the Prelude and Liebestod, as a single-movement work in two sections, has claimed its own place as a symphonic masterpiece, as orchestral in conception as a Bruckner Symphony, a Liszt tone poem, or one of the ambitious programmatic pieces of the early twentieth century by composers like Scriabin, Strauss, and, of course Schoenberg in his Pélléas und Mélisande and Verklärte Nacht. Wagner was as essential a model for the Second Vienna School as Beethoven, of course.

But instead, Barenboim jumped ahead to the fully mature, serial Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, which he wrote between 1926 and 1928. In these Schoenberg is more in a Brahmsian than a Wagnerian vein. One is tempted to think of it as a self-contained, detached reflection on Brahms’ Haydn Variations, with recollections of the concluding Passacaglia of the Fourth Symphony—all of this indirectly and in the background, of course. A brief introduction presents an elegant theme based on the venerable set BACH. Nine succinct variations follow, full of contrasting moods, rhythms, and colors. The work concludes with a longer (6 minute) finale, which looks backwards, sums the work up, and leads it to a natural conclusion. While it is possible to focus on the spareness and clarity of the Variations, Barenboim chose to remain with the rich blend with which he had begun the evening. The main theme, which can have a delicate, melancholy quality acquired a yearning intensity, which recalled Schoenberg’s earlier work. The variations certainly did not suffer under the opulent, close-knit sound of the orchestra. This, and Mr. Barenboim’s sense of proportion and flow, as well as his emotional involvement in the music, projected its cohesion as effectively as a more cerebral approach. The quality of the playing and the individuality of the interpretation are the sort of things that give one the feeling that Schoenberg’s music has arrived securely in the repertoire.

Still, a small number of audience members decided to run for the hills, even though the piece, as the Carnegie Hall program made clear, was only about as long as one of Haydn’s Paris Symphonies without repeats. Surely the human nervous system can withstand twenty minutes of the unfamiliar. Some people found it necessary to escape in the middle of the piece, even if they had to climb over their neighbors. For them, as well as for the people who stayed, as he announced, Maestro Barenboim had a treat, Johann Strauss Jr.’s polka, Unter Donner und Blitz, Op. 324.

Since my colleague, Larry Wallach has reviewed the second concert individually, I’ll only observe the radical difference in orchestral sound. Pierre Boulez, as always, strove for clarity in phrasing and texture and purity of timbre, as well as a marked separation of the instruments. This was just as effective with the Vienna Philharmonic as Barenboim’s more traditional method, and the orchestra entered into it with just as much enthusiasm and musicianship. I should say that I was not quite as disturbed by Barenboim’s playing of the Schoenberg Concerto as my colleague was, but in essence I agree: I was not convinced. It seemed as if Barenboim’s key to bringing Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto over to his audience was to assimilate it to the style of the romantic bravura concerto—a question which has been published and is widely known. The work has plenty of difficult and virtuoso passages, but it has much else as well, and the question is how far a pianist should go with it. While I found the performance colorful, energetic, and interesting, I thought Barenboim’s extroverted pianism distracting, especially from Boulez’ probing work in the orchestra. This was a typical example of Barenboim’s contrarian nature. (At Elliott Carter’s Hundredth birthday concert with the BSO in December 2008, he joined James Levine in Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for piano four-hands, and I have never heard so much conflict between two strong-willed musicians performing together. The result was stimulating rather than agitating, and I trust the two enjoyed the experience and parted friends, as, I hope, occurred on this occasion.) I also understood Barenboim’s encore, Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat Major, D. 935, No. 2, slightly differently. On one level, the encore was a lollipop for the audience, and on the other, it was an attempt to show a connection between the two Viennese masters. Barenboim emphasized off-the-beat accents most aggressively and brought out dissonant harmonies whenever he could, including one or two I’ve never noticed before. It was a thoroughly idiosyncratic performance, striving a bit too hard to find the dark side of Schubert in a less than obvious place—which is hardly a crime in itself, but it resulted in some unnecessarily unbeautiful Schubert. Some of the orchestra members seemed to take a special pleasure or interest in it, and I’m happy to have heard it that one time. As in the Schoenberg concerto, I’ll look forward to taking out Brendel’s recording of the Impromptu. The Adagio from the Tenth Symphony represents Mahler at his best, and Boulez is without a doubt one of his very finest interpreters—one of a handful who have a compelling understanding of this over-performed music to communicate.

On Sunday afternoon, Barenboim was back on the podium for more Schoenberg and Beethoven, as well as a major work by Pierre Boulez. As the orchestra began to play Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, an early work (1909) for large orchestra, which Schoenberg rescored for chamber orchestra in 1920, revised further in 1922, and rescored again for standard orchestra in 1949, I was surprised to hear an altogether leaner sound from them, not as spare as under Boulez, but quite different from the opening night. (To answer your question, I was sitting some twenty feet back and to the center of where I was on Friday.) Barenboim had chosen the lighter 1949 version of the Five Pieces, as opposed to the rich, Mahlerian großes Orchester of 1909, and he responded to its limpid timbres by helping them along, focusing on the contrasts of varying combinations of instruments. The clarity of the string passages and the liveliness of the interaction among the various choirs was remarkable. Barenboim projected the widely varying moods of the different sections with perfect empathy. The slow second and third movements were transfixing, not to mention the shifting colors and moods of the final movement.

It is fascinating to note how Schoenberg transformed the over-ripe pre-Great War spirit of the original Five Pieces for orchestra into a reflection of the early Nuclear Age. Schoenberg did not always revise his works to such an extent. Presumably he was eager to get his Op. 16 played in one form or another. For Pierre Boulez, on the other hand, it is standard practice. He created the germ of Notations, a dozen short piano pieces, at the age of twenty, in 1945, as an expression of his coming to terms with the music of the Second Vienna School. He returned to them in 1978, when he began to orchestrate them, recomposing them extensively. Although he originally planned to do them all, he stopped in 1998 with the seventh. They are now usually performed in the following order: I, VII, IV, III, and II, as Barenboim did on this occasion. His relationship to the work has been close over the years; hence he approaches it with some authority.

What Boulez brings to the Schoenbergian musical language is his own French sense of mystery. The first, seventh, and third Notations are imbued in mystery, and it appears at least in passing in all of them—a subtle feeling of doubt and anxiety in the face of the infinite. It is obvious that Barenboim has an intuitive feeling for these pieces, and the orchestra played them with confidence and enthusiasm, as if they had been playing Boulez often for years. After this and the previous work, my admiration for the Vienna Philharmonic, which took root in me years ago with the first Furtwängler discs I bought, was little short of awe.

For the final work in the series Barenboim returned to Beethoven, to his Fifth Symphony no less, and once again he outdid himself. The leaner textures he favored earlier in the concert served the Fifth admirably. Everything came through effortlessly, as the VPO addressed the symphony with their customary dimension and weight. Interestingly, Barenboim decided to dispense with the repeats, which are now common in Beethoven performance. This was perfectly appropriate under the circumstances, bringing Beethoven into line with his terse twentieth century companions. Barenboim began with particular urgency. He seemed especially interested in the rests following each phrase of the principle motif, and he emphasized these with an aggressive jab of his baton. He engaged in subtly managed rallentandi for the more lyrical subjects, working their shape into his concept of the overall form of the work. He used this to powerful effect in the development section, which, absent the exposition repeat, took on a large presence in the movement. He allowed the slow movement to move forward at the requisite andante con moto, but he gave it a weight and dignity one doesn’t often hear in contemporary performances. The subtlety and extent of the dynamic range was extraordinary, with the orchestra producing hair-raising pianissimi in the Hoffmannesque third movement, as well as massive chordal statements of the principle four-note motif. This led inexorably, with powerful tension and energy into the grand outburst of the finale. As before, I hung on every phrase as the movement progressed to its magnificent conclusion.

Unlike the Sixth, this was a highly individual interpretation and a subtle one. Above all, Barenboim was not timid about reaching for the cosmic aspect of the score. (If Ives did it, why shouldn’t Beethoven?) One could sense the thought that went into it, and the conscious decisions that were made, but every detail was compelling, resulting in what was for me and, as it seemed, pretty much everybody in Carnegie Hall one of the greatest, most powerful readings of the old classic in my experience. It was one of those occasions when one felt extremely lucky to be present. The applause was heartfelt, uproarious, and interminable.

If some craven souls purposely missed Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, there was, en revanche, one personage who deliberately eschewed Beethoven’s Fifth. That was Elliott Carter, whom I saw, sated with Schoenberg and Boulez, leaving Carnegie Hall in the interval. He missed great Beethoven, of course, but we can assume that he knew what he was doing. There is even more justice in Mr. Carter’s departure than in Strauss Jr.’s Polka.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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