Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin offer a polished, deeply expressive Bruckner Second
The extraordinary ability of the Staatskapelle Berlin, under its longtime music director Daniel Barenboim, to breathe and phrase like a single instrument would no doubt have appealed to the organist-composer Anton Bruckner, whose Symphony No. 2 in C minor was the centerpiece of the orchestra’s concert Friday night in Carnegie Hall.
In the great sweep of Bruckner’s nine numbered symphonies, which the Staatskapelle is performing at Carnegie over an eleven-day period this week and next, the Second finds the composer just stepping out on the journey that will lead to the full realization of his symphonic ideal.
Friday’s performance seemed to take that fact into account, as well as this composer’s deep humility before his God and before the musical establishment of his adopted city, Vienna. Ego and assertiveness à la Beethoven were absent; the music seemed to glow, and grow, from within.
Of course this organic, exploratory character is a feature of all Bruckner’s symphonies, but especially so in this early effort (heard here in the composer’s 1877 revision, as edited by Leopold Nowak). There was, however, nothing tentative or unsure about the way this orchestra and its leader realized the composer’s thoughts.
This is a year of anniversaries for Barenboim, who is marking 60 years since his Carnegie Hall debut, and 25 as director of the Staatskapelle. Such long podium tenures have led, in other instances, to fatigue and sloppiness in performance; Barenboim and his Berlin band, in contrast, just seem to grow in unity of sound and purpose.
Conductors often face a choice between a rich blend of orchestral sound and a transparent musical texture. On Friday, the Staatskapelle seemed to have resolved this question through a remarkable tone chemistry that included sensitively matching and balancing instrumental sounds, soft attacks (especially in strings and horns) that gave the phrasing an unusually liquid quality, and allowing each instrument or section to express its own character amid Bruckner’s fecund counterpoint.
Having such a flexible and expressive instrument apparently freed Barenboim to look at the big picture. On Friday the symphony’s first movement—whose many stop signs inspired Viennese wags to dub this work the “Pause Symphony”—hung together splendidly, its long rests as much a part of the musical architecture as the notes.
Among the many beauties to admire along the way were woodwind choruses that shone out rather than stuck out; horn solos that sounded not like the taxis on 57th Street but like molten gold; and double bass lines that were uncommonly sonorous and expressive, even (maybe especially) in pizzicato.
The Andante’s hymn tune and its two returns, each more elaborate than the last, were finely staged by Barenboim with abundant yet transparent counterpoint, leading to one last long, expressive crescendo and a dwindling to the slimmest pianissimo at the close. The solo horn’s tone in the interludes was so liquid that one actually wished it were a touch more assertive.
In the same vein, the orchestra’s marvelous smoothness and blend worked against it a bit in the Scherzo, whose animal spirits seemed to call for a rougher attack, the better to contrast with the delicate, tender trio section. In any case, compelling rhythms swept the listener along.
The finale began with material like the scherzo, but more ambiguous rhythmically, and more given to those pregnant pauses. The orchestra continued to be a malleable and responsive instrument whenever Barenboim took the tiller and steered; however, players and conductor also showed they understood each other well enough to generate wave after wave of crescendo and climax without a lot of stick-waving on his part.
Bar by bar, the music was superbly rendered, but the question of where Bruckner was going with all this was less well answered in this movement than in the previous ones. The score’s many beauties were evident, however, and the symphony’s final blaze of C major brought the Carnegie audience quite rightly to its feet.
The concert opened with a stylish and expressive performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466, with Barenboim leading from the keyboard. The orchestra’s polish and singleness of purpose were evident from the outset, and Barenboim managed to play both strictly in time—which no doubt helped the orchestra stay with him—and with elegant, poetic phrasing.
As one might expect in this long-term relationship, the orchestra managed its part pretty well when its conductor’s hands were busy at the keys. But any concerto performance loses something when the orchestra is just an extension of the soloist’s will. Would it be diplomatically feasible for another conductor to lead Barenboim’s band while he plays the solo? One would like to see them try it, at least.
The second movement, titled, Romance, indeed received a Romantic treatment, with swooning piano phrases and strings borne on a velvet cushion of woodwinds. Even the G-minor “storm” episode sounded mellifluous.
Barenboim’s strict-time treatment of the spurting finale theme was more effective than rushing it, as many pianists do. In this whiplash of a piece, everybody being on the same page yielded marvelous results, crisp and compelling right to the effervescent finish.
The Mozart performance was followed by an intermission almost as long as the concerto itself, needlessly delaying the main event. A brief pause to reset the stage, with house lights at half, might be a better alternative.
The Bruckner series with Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin will continue 8 p.m. Saturday with Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491 and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor. carnegiehall.org; 212-247-7800.