Review: Staatskapelle Berlin with Daniel Barenboim

Sunday, January 29 2017
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim, conductor and piano

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 (1786)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 9 (1896)

The lady next to me called Daniel Barenboim “the guy who was married to Jacqueline du Pre”.  Well, I guess that’s one way of putting it, even if his Mozart was underwhelming today.  He and his highly regarded orchestra seemed worn out, which is understandable given that this was the final concert of their ambitious Bruckner cycle at Carnegie Hall over the past week and half.  (That, and it can’t be easy to be foreigners in America right now.)  Moreover, some pieces, such as Mozart’s sublime 23rd piano concerto, probably shouldn’t have the conductor doubling as the soloist.  The first movement sounded thin and messy, perhaps under-rehearsed.  The achingly beautiful second movement was unfortunately a complete throwaway–in a movement where every note demands to be finished off and the spaces between notes are not meant to be rushed, Barenboim was forced to tend to the orchestra at the expense of his own instrument.  The upbeat final movement somewhat salvaged the performance, as the simpler rhythmic patterns and less conflicted pathos allowed the percussive piano and lilting strings to shine.

I’m not at that point yet in my music education where I can pretend to understand Bruckner.  When I listen to his symphonies, especially the Ninth, I hear grandiose designs of Beethoven at times and cosmic darkness of Mahler at others, but overall the music is a bit eccentric and inaccessible.  Nevertheless, I sense that the orchestra was much better prepared and suited for the Bruckner than it was for the Mozart.  Without being able to follow the symphony’s own structure, I sat through the performance by imagining it as the score to a highlight reel of the 2016 World Series.  Turns out that may actually be onto something, as the music’s endless highs and lows eventually lead into a fervently hopeful build-up that explodes in a wrenching, dissonant diminished seventh chord.  Several seconds of abyss follows before a harmonic but muted adagio-like epilogue wraps up the journey.  As a diehard Cleveland fan, that’s not altogether different from how I think of the World Series, if I have the heart to think about it at all, in retrospect.


Review: Haydn and Bruckner, Philadelphia Orchestra

Tuesday, January 26 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor

Haydn, Symphony No. 103, “Drumroll” (1795)
Bruckner, Symphony No. 4, “Romantic” (1880)

I woke up this morning, groggy and already looking forward to sleep again.  Getting over a nagging jet lag while adjusting to a new routine is the price we pay for the Best Vacation Ever, in case my credit card bill isn’t enough.  Between that and the ankle-deep puddle of slush at every street corner courtesy of last weekend’s snowstorm, I thought an unthinkable thought: maybe I should skip tonight’s Philadelphia Orchestra concert.

But then I started listening to the Haydn symphony on the program and, by the second movement, decided that sleep will have to wait.  So I drank more coffee than was good for me and ironically needed the music to calm down.  Not that the two symphonies performed by the orchestra were calming, per se, but rather that they created a medium into which I could channel my jitteriness.  In any case, the things we do for those we love!

Haydn and Bruckner nearly bookend the Austro-German canon:  Haydn, preceded only by Bach, and Bruckner, succeeded only by Mahler.  It is perhaps for this reason that I usually consider them to be at the fringe of my comfort zone.  Besides, Haydn wrote like over 100 symphonies.  Over 100!  I’m guessing that he had time to do that because he never binge watched House of Cards, but still there is probably such a thing as the Conservation of Total Symphonic Quality–the total quality of a composer’s symphonic compositions is constant, and since Haydn wrote nearly 12 times the number of symphonies as Beethoven, it follows that the average Haydn symphony should be only approximately 1/12 as good as the average Beethoven symphony.  Right?

While I can’t speak for his other 103 symphonies (can anyone?), the “Drumroll” was very pleasant.  A masterpiece of mischief, I’d even say.  The first movement is uncharacteristically mysterious, with the curious opening timpani roll that literally begins before the audience is ready and an ominous bass-line theme that recurs throughout.  The playful folksy theme introduced in the second movement is one of those alluring melodies–like the theme of Bolero–that one can listen to forever, and one does for what feels like the entirety of the rest of the symphony.  In fact it’s still stuck in my head.  The melody is transferred seamlessly and often ingeniously between different sections of the strings, strings and winds, soloists and orchestra–this work must be the textbook example they use in composition class.  Yannick often over-conducts (which to his credit nearly always results in positively memorable performances), but here he was faithful to the era and recognized that the score required no further emotional interjections.  Instead he simply moderated the tempo and allowed the orchestra, particularly the strings, to play at once tautly and freely.  It’s a wonder that for a piece which calls for less than a full orchestra–reduced string sections, only a handful of winds–an easy synergy seems to spring out of nowhere.  Compliment to both the composer and the performers, I’d reckon.

To have inferiority complex is to be human, but even so imagine the weight on Bruckner’s shoulders to not even be the 3rd most celebrated 19th century symphonist whose last name began with B.  Since it is impossible to discuss Bruckner without context, based on what little I have heard of his work, he seems to be the missing link between Beethoven and Bahler, I mean Mahler.  The symphonic journey from the late Classical era to the late Romantic era is in some sense a progression in the scope and palette of the brass winds, and however much the Philadelphia Orchestra is paying its principal horn Jennifer Montone, it is not enough.  Her solo notes were clear but rich, at times soaring alone to convey the passage of time, at times lurking behind the strings to serve as distant hunting calls.  The entire symphony was 65 minutes long and too grand for me to analyze structurally, and certainly the audience gave the performance a generous ovation, but personally the fourth movement felt like a messy, drawn-out afterthought to the climatic last notes of the third movement as opposed to a satisfying conclusion.  Then again, I suppose form is mostly the concern of Classicists.  Romanticists want their music to expand beyond the notes played, and like life itself, closure is not guaranteed.