The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Friday, July 9, 2010

DR Kultur: Daniel Barenboim leads glowing Bruckner Seventh. Beethoven/Bruckner zyklus. Staatskapelle Berlin. Philharmonie, Berlin - 25.06.10

Speaking with student from Tokyo years ago, I learned quickly he knew some piano and had some interest in classical music – in addition to whatever else on the side. On my mind was a Bruckner Seventh Symphony to come over the air later that evening from Chicago under Daniel Barenboim. What I then had to ask Keigo was what if anything anybody knew of how the great late maestro, prolifically recorded Bruckner interpreter Asahina Takashi was getting along. Upon arriving home, some minutes before Norm Pellegrini (DSO emcee) came on, I discovered notice that he had passed away several weeks earlier – right before end of 2001 – and after having conducted in Nagoya his final concert two months earlier as fifty-four year music director of the Osaka Philharmonic.

I then quickly emailed Keigo for both of us to reckon the Seventh on in memory of whom Barenboim and Henry Fogel brought to Chicago for much too delayed U.S. conducting debut at age of 87. The Bruckner Fifth Symphony at Orchestra Hall then beamed to television sets all across Japan – in May of 1996; a friend of mine living in Indianapolis made the drive up to attend This Orchestra Hall Seventh among Bruckner I had yet heard from Barenboim went just adequately, mildly phlegmatically. He had put out in 1992 a fine recording of the Seventh (Teldec) with the Berlin Philharmonic. Now very lately there has been this performance by Staatskapelle Berlin several days of necessary breather after three consecutive nights of both Beethoven concerti and three preceding Bruckner symphonies at the Philharmonie.

Re-reading Robert Simpson’s notes and inspired by what just got played at the Philharmonie forces one to somewhat rethink what one has smugly concluded from its overall serenity to be one of the most conservative of Bruckner’s symphonies. Things are not always as they appear on the surface. The Seventh is instead perhaps Bruckner’s most quietly radical and thus mostly quietly innovative creation thus far. The layout of there being three theme groups for such as an Exposition and Recapitulation for its first movement do not really tell any story of this movement’s formal properties. So much gets redefined in this first movement, for on the surface, it one must label it, the great arched binary form it is instead. Rich with so much supple modulation (between keys) and manipulation of its material, there is much found within to anticipate what Bruckner would write in his Eighth and Ninth symphonies. Unique to stand on its own as is the Sixth, that Bruckner considered his most original (thus far), it subtly anticipates some of what happens in the Seventh.

The open sonorities, gleaming quality about its melodic material, as Simpson says, make for the lay listener the more congenial experience of Bruckner than a number of his other symphonies. In this happening however, one can fear there is as much or perhaps more lost than illuminated. My earliest experience of the Seventh live – Houston Symphony under Efrem Kurtz (1979) – was mostly likely so unwittingly deceptive. Though happy at the time with what I had heard, but having developed just some intimation toward what Bruckner is about, I felt vague dissatisfaction.

Assessing the Seventh to be of mostly classical formal characteristics is misguided and can often lead the interpreter to hold where and how this music stretches boundaries too much in check. There is tempting often safe choice to sentimentalize, even make stodgy long paragraphs and expanse that happens between what proportions, according to textbook, are readily assumed to conventionally emerge.

Barenboim took the Seventh in 1992 on disc at quite a stately pace, but still flexibly shaping narrative of what transpires with good cohesion and fine handle on logic. At more moderate tempos here and utmost flexibility with which one can keep this music intact, he opened out the Seventh’s unique characteristics the best I have ever heard anybody do at all lately. Barenboim assuredly managed working in diminuendo into opening line of the first movement as it leans into the dominant - B Major – consistent with his finding more flexible sweep to this movement’s opening paragraph overall than previously. He then clarified with inevitably accumulating sense of anxiety this music’s inability to hold on to such as any stable tonal center - balm arriving in form of (as Simpson typifies it) the half supertonic of C Major to at last help confirm B Major as (partially) achieved tonality at last.

Allowing a few lax rhythms, Barenboim freely achieved fine internal rubato for bourree like third theme. Later passing reference to it got heavy emphasis when more prudent to understate anticipation of pianissimo arrival of (tonality for) main theme in E Major moments later. Judiciously scaled moderate sweep suited Barenboim for grandiose inversion segue into C Minor re-statement of the opening theme – impressive here – in context of his ease at making all breathe very well throughout all else. Fortunately he avoided overstating what is effectively incidental reference to the home key where is conventionally expected a more prepared, fulfilling restatement. Barenboim wisely held off making significant allargando, until reaching consequent to it here; trumpets glistened in doubling this once more further enhanced lean into the dominant (B Major). Off entrance of second theme, almost half a beat early (on purpose), came playing of restive deep longing, as if to proclaim continuance this direction (B Major) as tenuous at best. Barenboim then insistently made segue to A Major from third theme group. Inevitable large parenthesis of the main theme consequent - mostly non-enveloped here - then ushered in without large slow-down a fully enthralling, blazing conclusion in E Major.

Equally passionate, thoroughly developed was Barenboim’s now moderate paced traversal through the Andante – more Andante here than very close to ‘Adagio’ he took on disc, others have also taken - very affectingly. Now he is near two thirds quicker to an arguably, mildly controversial not ‘sehr langsam’ Andante Metzmacher took last year with DSO Berlin. Metzmacher found the more linear means of exploring Bruckner’s innovation with form than Barenboim; his scaling of Bruckner’s horizons was the starker for it. Barenboim achieved more fulsome results, even if perhaps more intuitively than how Metzmacher, more consistent artist, had.

The Andante opened mostly elegiac, in place of sounding hieratic. Strings made pensive their musing, coming off firmly resounded refrain to main theme. Lines throughout were suffused with fervor we associate with line from Bruckner’s Te Deum. Passionate crest was made to opening paragraph of this Andante on half-diminished supertonic, but without denying scale of what was imminent, while making supple long descending clarinet lines and sonorous comment on Wagner tubas. Cantilena for second subject was close to Italianate – Barenboim’s experience at La Scala starting to show – in its fully vocalized grace and sensuality. Gentle yearning in upper violins coming off this episode was very affecting. Great sense of striving,achieved by supple means, infused rising crests through the remote tonalities of C and G Major, latter of which through passing cadence in C Minor, this music returns to C-sharp Minor by means of tertiary relationship with A-Flat (or G-Sharp). Gentle second theme, enhanced by floating violin’s descant, all centered in A-Flat, facilitated very reflective following retreat thereof.

Sense of great strain was apt in making last ascending reach or two from gradually accumulating sequence for explosive climax in C Major (leading tone or half-subtonic to C-Sharp Minor) – all seemingly to not have encumbered the line coursing through all this and the ease with which flutes (in D-Flat) found lift in making retreat from it. Deftly achieved sense of light lingering beyond - past notably sad lament from horn and Wagner tubas - ended what continued sounding very incredibly assured. Barenboim, in finding the self-transformative character of this music, had this Seventh speak very much as anticipatory of the Eighth (and Ninth).

Rollicking broad bow strokes and posthorn sounding principal trumpet made merry romp of the scherzo. Sweep and shape up to end of first half was all free, yet precise to the ear - open air and light interplay made of bucolically accented retransition to restatement of the opening. With simplicity Barenboim caught drowsiness of start to the Trio, letting in vernal shaft of light to anticipate making benediction out of restatement of the same, underpinned evocatively by not quite awakened ruddy sounding low French horn.

Mercurial jaunt opened the finale rapt – all keenly observed the rapid harmonic shifts between episodes and through elaborate figuration within. Barenboim treated somewhat strictly one inverted restatement of the opening theme in the strings midway through, to avoid making cliché of such. He then made very solid the forceful brass unison ascending craggy, igneous restatements of the main theme. Hush coming off such last statement by Staatskapelle brass to frame chorale second theme was very telling - after keeping first statement of the same chorale simple several minutes earlier. It spoke naturally it being felt by all on stage of having accomplished (considerably) more than what usually passes as good norm for the Seventh. With the fire these players let course through the tricky closing pages of the Seventh, there seemed no further challenge too great. Following evening, it would be the Eighth.

Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto provided gateway to such a fresh open-ended outlook on the Bruckner Seventh. The breaking free of a semblance of classical grace and poise seemed practically as much theme song for this concerto as for the Bruckner - as though Beethoven could have been composed as catalyst thereof. Fine precisely scaled enveloping was made for parenthesis into minor key submediant during the solo exposition, but already with a Lisztian fire on cusp of bursting out from the playing, yet without loss of poise. Barenboim both as soloist and conductor provided with measured finesse balance between antecedents and consequents in the line, their internal exchange of masculine and feminine phrasing, accenting. There was also the orchestra’s role of, colloquially speaking, taming the near-savage beast. Calibration between soloist and orchestra through the frequently agitated Development was excellent – with quasi-operatic rhetoric for long cadential segue through pensively remote C-sharp minor episode into well characterized capricious G Major re-transition.

Equally Mozartean from Barenboim were doubled broken thirds restatement of first movement opening idea and vocalized phrasing he drew out of Staatskapelle oboe and other winds under much filigree. Cadenza to have started tentatively quickly regained its footing, poise with well shaped lyrical second subject and incisive interplay between insistent first theme derived motif in left hand and increasingly elaborate response in the right. Putting thought of virtuoso display for its own sake aside, quite an engaging drama played out from there before all attained to Elysium for a most bel canto opening to the coda to the first movement, and equally impassioned playing to achieve its close.

Broad allargando for firm orchestral accents contrasted well with poised, hushed reply from soloist, with Barenboim making it subtle the string tutti’s retreat from making confrontation. He then curiously eschewed threat to overstate the ‘lion’s roar’ near close of the intermezzo - after fine beseeching quality to his phrasing right before.

Barenboim then made rhetorically slightly hesitant accents of rondo theme upbeats, without deflating any vitality of the rondo to ensue. Pace was a vigorously stated healthy Moderato that allowed the expansive second theme high in the right hand ample space to sing out. He then wisely eschewed making anything too arched out of largely re-transitional Development – with fire to internally spur on both line and filigree and alternate accents between orchestra and soloist as from within, toward making something febrile of its entirety. Thinking well ahead, he phrased return of the second theme in the tonic with greater poise and then made broad allargando, written out such, of slowly descending and ascending chord resolving on the subdominant for playfully clarinet doubled restatement of opening theme - replied to contrastingly with great vigor.

Fully weighted then were the vigorous octaves to open brief cadenza - to soon thereafter spin off pointed ascending, jumping trills into orchestral re-entry. His reach for the large clash of thrashing secondary dominant to the subdominant was found lacking nothing in heft toward bringing this rondo to a furious conclusion. Nothing could have proved better showcase, not so much for Barenboim, but for Beethoven and Bruckner to rouse anyone listening out of last vestige of lingering sense of complacency. This was what this concert was all about, what got accomplished here.

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