Barenboim, Staatakapelle Berlin deliver a night to remember with thrilling Bruckner Fifth

Wed Jan 25, 2017 at 12:57 pm
Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 5 was performed by Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall.

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 5 was performed by Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall.

One of the most remarkable events in the history of classical concertizing in New York City reached the midpoint Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall; Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin played the mighty Symphony No. 5 in their Bruckner symphony cycle. It was one of the most beautiful and thrilling orchestral performances one is ever likely to hear.

But first, Mozart. These concerts (excepting Saturday night’s Bruckner 8), open with the appetizer of a Mozart piano concerto or concertante work, and Tuesday the selection was the Sinfonia concertante, K. 297b, for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Horn.

This was a genial performance, with no real argument to make about the music other than the satisfaction of playing it well. What made one take notice was the marvelous sound of the wind players, all principals in the orchestra: oboist Gregor Witt, clarinetist Matthias Glauber, bassoonist Mathias Baier, and hornist Radovan Vlatkovic. In front of Barenboim’s legato accompaniment, the quartet produced the aural equivalent of a sunny and mellow afternoon nap on a spring day.

Symphony No. 5 is the first in the run of profound, magnificent symphonies that Bruckner wrote continuing through his final symphony, the unfinished Ninth. The composer, tragically, never heard a performance of the Fifth other than a run-through of a four-hand piano reduction. His final score, reworked from an unpublished 1876 draft, was not premiered until 1894, and the composer was too ill to attend.

Each of the later works has a unique, strong musical personality, and the Fifth is philosophical, inward looking. Bruckner wrote it during a period of personal turmoil, and while it’s a fool’s game to try and hear a direct line to easily circumscribed emotions and experiences in a composer’s work, the Fifth does argue with itself and pass through several states of mind before its final chord.

The slow introduction to the opening Allegro is a microcosm of Bruckner’s art: a hushed, ethereal aesthetic; rich brass choirs; a sophisticated and subtle modulation from one key to another. In this case, the music begins its weary, resigned tread in B-flat, then carries a sense of increasing weight, like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill, until a last, slicing push reaches the blazing sun of the distant key of A major.

The orchestra captured this gloriously, with a sense of calm and determination leading to the light. From the opening phrases, the musicians sounded like they were deeply inside the music, channeling drama and meaning.

Barenboim shaped the performance with an expert long view. The series of recurring climaxes were terraced in such a way that each one was slightly grander than the last, so that the final one in each movement was the highest and most stupendous.

His touch was light, even through the musical complexities of the finale. There, the music brings back bits and pieces from the previous movements, each fighting with the other for prominence and control. A series of complex fugues makes the argument that logic and reason are the tools through which to find personal understanding and resolution, and Barenboim, leading without a score, kept the line flowing.

The rest he left to the orchestra, which has done nothing but prove itself the star of this cycle. In 2009, they played Mahler’s symphonies in order (with Barenboim and Pierre Boulez conducting), and since then they have made dramatic technical advances. They also, mysteriously, have transformed their orchestral sound into what may be the closest we’ll ever hear to an orchestra from the pre-electrical recording era. What a conductor does, unseen, in rehearsal is more important than what the audience witnesses on stage during a performance, and Barenboim has apparently been brewing some sort of historic musical alchemy.

The Staatskapelle sound is burnished, grainy, and solid, like polished oak panels. The brass section, which is essential in Bruckner, eschews the monochromatic blend common these days for a quality that clearly differentiates timbres between high and low brass, and between valves and slides. The woodwinds sound as if they are backlit, the double-reeds extra nasal, the flutes extra bright, the clarinets beautiful, quite close in sound to that of an organ (Bruckner was a virtuoso organist).

The string playing Tuesday night was as fine as one will hear with any orchestra. Concertmaster (the orchestra rotates that position) Wolfram Brandl led with extraordinary vitality—during the final applause, he shook his right arm out with relief and fatigue—and the entire section played with tremendous skill and musicality. Long, slow lines were full of subtle, deeply expressive inflections, and the syncopated rhythms in the scherzo drove the movement through attention to the articulation of each accent.

Bruckner is known for his brass writing, but it is his string parts that hold everything together. In the Fifth Symphony, the strings present and preserve every aesthetic and structural idea, from the atmosphere of the introduction through the musical arguments of the finale. Their presence and importance was enhanced by Barenboim’s arrangement, which put the cellos and violas in the middle and the basses at the very back, on risers, a la Stokowski. The creamy translucency of the sound was positively sensual.

Beyond this unique sound, which was an immense joy, was their commitment to the music. It is rare to hear a professional orchestra play with such clear love for the music, and the Staatskapelle has been playing like this for five days now. (Even with the expected accumulation of fatigue, the brass were heroic, especially in the final movement, and suffered no more than a few minor flubs.) It is this last, this expression of love, that has elevated this cycle to the highest rank of experience.

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, 8 p.m., Wednesday.

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