Above: Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin at Carnegie Hall; performance photo by Steve J Sherman
Thursday January 19th, 2017 - The Staatskapalle Berlin in the first of a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in which Daniel Barenboim appears both as piano soloist and conductor. Each program in the series pairs a Mozart concerto with a Bruckner symphony. Tonight's was the only performance in the series that I was able to attend, and it proved most valuable as an opportunity to hear not only a great conductor/pianist and orchestra, but also a rare chance to experience Bruckner's first symphony live.
The evening marked, almost to the day, the 60th anniversary of Daniel Barenboim's Carnegie Hall debut; on January 20, 1957, he was the piano soloist on a program conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Over the six decades since that momentous night, Maestro Barenboim has maintained his status as a premiere pianist, and has become one of the great conductors of our time.
My personal memories of Barenboim as pianist and as conductor are especially meaningful to me: in November 2008, he and James Levine were the de luxe pianists for a performance of Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes at Weill Hall; the singers were members of the Met Young Artists Program. It was a superbly intimate performance. Shortly after this Liebeslieder evening, Barenboim made his long-awaited debut on the podium at The Met in a splendid series of performances of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE: we went twice, returning for a repeat when Waltraud Meier flew in to rescue one performance and made a striking impression as Isolde.
Above: performance photo by Steve J Sherman
This evening, Maestro Barenboim appeared first as piano soloist for the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major. From the opening bars, my friend Dmitry and I were struck by how absolutely lovely the orchestra sounded in the Carnegie setting. After the interval, when the much larger contingent of players required by the Bruckner took the stage, the sonic effect remained particularly cordial. It's a stellar orchestra, and within moments I was regretting that I hadn't made arrangements to hear them in more concerts from this impressive series.
In 1791, the final year of Mozart's life, the composer was at a low point. Poor health (his own, and his wife's) and financial worries bore down on him, and he felt the Viennese musical public had somewhat lost interest in him. At the time he was composing his last piano concerto, #27, he wrote to his wife: "I can't explain to you how I feel...there's a kind of emptiness which just hurts me: a kind of longing that is never stilled..." His despair shows thru in the 27th concerto, although light still manages to pierce the clouds often enough. First performed on March 4, 1791, it marked Mozart's last public appearance as a piano soloist.
With a smallish ensemble - no trumpets, drums, or clarinets - this concerto feels intimate, even in the spaciousness of Carnegie Hall. This impression was sustained by the marvelous subtlety of Maestro Barenboim's playing, particularly in the cadenzas, where he could fine the tone down to a silken whisper.
In the melody-rich first movement, the orchestra cushioned the piano line to gorgeous effect, with the solo flute and bassoon displaying great finesse. The flautist continued to impress in the Larghetto which follows. Maestro Barenboim's playing here was beautifully sustained and thoughtful, and an atmosphere of tranquility laced with gentle melancholy settled over the Hall. Barenboim's exquisite tapering of the final phrase hung on the air, but an enormous, ill-timed sneeze from an audience member destroyed this magical moment.
Pianist and orchestra bounced back from this unfortunate intrusion for a perfect rendering of the concerto's concluding Allegro; Barenboim's playing here had ample spirit and polish, and the musicians did him proud. This is a somewhat darker finale than Mozart's usually wrote for his concerti, but it does feature the melody of a little song Mozart was working on: "Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling" ("Longing for Spring"). By late 1791, the composer was fighting for his life; he never saw another Spring, dying on December 5th and thus sadly depriving the world of three or four more decades-worth of magnificent music.
Above: performance photo by Steve J Sherman
Anton Bruckner's 1st symphony languished in obscurity for over twenty years. Following a single performance in Linz, Austria, in 1868, it was not heard again until 1891 when it was given in a heavily revised version. Its Carnegie Hall premiere didn't take place - incredibly enough - until 1985, and performances of it remain comparatively rare. After hearing tonight's excellent performance, I feel its neglect is unjustified; in fact, I look forward to hearing it again...the sooner, the better.
Maestro Barenboim's fondness for this music was evident from start to finish, and the Staatskapelle Berlin gave it a performance by turns lush, subtle, and vigorous. How thrilling to hear (and watch) the orchestra's eight double-basses playing in unison; and the timpanist was having a field day - I was mesmerized by him throughout the third and fourth movements.
A march-like cadence sets the opening Allegro on its way; starting almost whimsically, this soon becomes more emphatic. A lull comes as the woodwinds gently introduce a free-flowing violin melody. Suddenly the trombones take control with a mighty fanfare. Distant thunder from the timpani, and the march motif resumes; the movement carries on with an ebb and flow of what feel like climaxes but which subside just short of peaking. Then, after a final rush, we come to an abrupt end. The players' keen response to Barenboim's often understated gestures spoke of the natural affinity the maestro and the musicians have established over the years.
The orchestra's playing of the Adagio was especially moving. This music builds cinematically to a glorious climax, then evaporates into the heavens in an inspired and inspiring coda. Maintaining a perfect balance between the layered voices, Barenboim again showed that this music is in his very blood.
The lively Scherzo is particularly engaging: it has the feel of a tribal dance - by turns throbbing and evocative - reminding me a bit of the well-known Scherzo from the Dvořák 6th. The whirlwind subsides for a gentle interlude before the dance springs up again, stomping on to a quick stop.
Only in the final movement did I feel Bruckner might have been losing his grip somewhat. The music here did not have a cohesive feeling; the structure felt somewhat lacking in tautness, with a couple of walkabouts stemming the flow of the piece. Nevertheless, it was played with utter commitment and a sense of triumph at the close.
Aside from the sneeze, a late seating after the piano concerto's first movement caused an unfortunate break in my concentration. The spectacular performance of the Bruckner helped to set these distractions aside, with Maestro Barenboim and his orchestra basking in a grand ovation at the end of a wonderful evening of music-making.