It may seem like bad manners to welcome the Berlin Philharmonic to New York by discussing a film which deals with the darkest period in its history, but I have no trouble pointing out that its creator’s neutral position leads to a fair, even sympathetic treatment of the orchestra and the survivors who tell the story through their personal experiences and perspectives. The humanity and culture of these gentlemen shine through, and through the political murk, the viewer can develop a vivid sense of what made this orchestra and the musicians in it unique. Enrique Sánchez Lansch's Das Reichsorchester is entirely the product of a contemporary German mentality, reflecting the desire of a later generation to understand the many gradations of complicity and innocence, courage and fear, their grandparents could grasp as choices in a political system which left them few.
My path to an enthusiastic appreciation of Daniel Barenboim’s music-making has, I confess, been a long one. In his early years, I found his willed seriousness, both as a pianist and as a conductor, off-putting. The effect was not only rather dour, but smacked of affectation as well. My conversion began with some of his more recent Liszt orchestral recordings and became definitive in the magnificent Tristan he conducted at the Met in autumn of 2008. This is not to say that I am any less aware of the wilfulness of his approach to music. When he performs he makes specific decisions about his overall interpretation as well as the execution of the smaller units, and the listener is always aware that she or he is hearing an interpretation. Even in seemingly spontaneous outbursts, there is an element of arbitrariness. The most totally convincing Barenboim performance I have heard in the past was that Tristan.
I should most likely not distract you from giving a subscription to The Berkshire Review as a holiday gift. We need subscriptions to carry on our work, but there are a few items that have come in for review that I can warmly suggest as excellent gifts. These are not systematic, and they are not always serious, but we do recommend them. Some of them will be reviewed in detail over the following weeks.
Huntley Dent’s recent review of Bernstein’s Mahler and now his lucid evaluation of several recordings of Tristan und Isolde put me in mind not so much of operatic traditions as those of the concert hall, since Wagner’s music drama is so deeply rooted in the orchestra and the conductor who leads it. The modern symphony orchestra and the concert halls in which they play evolved as a substantially bourgeois institution over the course of the nineteenth century.