Barenboim stumbles in Mozart but leads Staatskapelle Berlin in a brilliant Bruckner Fourth

Tue Jan 24, 2017 at 1:41 pm
Daniel Barenboim performed Mozart's "Coronation" concerto and led the Staatskapelle Berlin in Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 Monday night at Carnegie Hall.

Daniel Barenboim performed Mozart’s “Coronation” concerto and led the Staatskapelle Berlin in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 Monday night at Carnegie Hall.

The Barenboim Bruckner binge continues at Carnegie Hall, and is now entering the territory traditionally regarded as the real meat of the set. On Monday night, as a nor’easter slammed into New York, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin presented the weighty Symphony No. 4, among the most popular of the nine (not including the withdrawn “Symphony No. 0”) and the earliest to enjoy a regular place in the concert repertoire today.

Monday’s program began with a lighter pairing. Many of the installments in this nine-concert series open with Barenboim at the piano for a Mozart concerto, and Monday’s offering was No. 26, “Coronation,” a charming work that nevertheless has been left out of the major Mozart canon.

Oddly, the orchestra seemed the star of the concerto. Barenboim struggled to find his way cleanly through the part, coming out uneven or cluttered even in relatively simple figures. He focused his energy on shaping the music rather than a polished solo playing, which worked to a point. Yet as muddled passages and missed notes accumulated, it was hard not to grimace just a bit.

The Staatskapelle, however, was brilliant in the concerto, playing with spacious, shining sound from the opening bars of the first movement, even with reduced numbers. The Larghetto was drawn out to a molasses-like crawl, but the closing Allegretto made for a winning finish, graceful with little bursts of bombast.

The Bruckner, of course, was the main event on Monday and, thankfully, it lived up to expectations. The Staatskapelle under Barenboim sounded powerful, poised, exact, and dynamic, their performance ably capturing the size and grand ambition of the music. The “Romantic” absolutely earns its moniker, a piece of soaring heights, powerful emotions, and stark contrasts.

For all that, the opening was not so auspicious. The first bars, an unforgettable, foreboding horn call over a string tremolo, is portentous to be sure, but needs to have enough energy to give the impression that the enormous mass of the music is moving inexorably, if glacially, forward. At Barenboim’s tempo it seemed simply frozen. Quickly, though, once the music moved out of its prologue, the Staatskapelle began to impress with the rich texture of their sound, producing gales as strong as those that battered the streets outside the hall, and showing a wide array of colors that together created the necessary feeling of awe.

The second movement gave out gorgeous, warm sighs to begin, maintaining a focused specificity of emotion through the music’s rapturous, soaring heights. A movement like this can lose its direction all too easily, but in Barenboim’s hands it had a constant, taut line running through, persisting all the way to the hushed closing bars.

A stray blat or two from the trumpets notwithstanding, the breezy fanfares of the Scherzo were marvelous, gurgling with excitement and creating a joyous tumult in the roiling final bars, as though the entire orchestra might take wing at any moment. This mode contrasted brilliantly with the stately calm of the trio section, as well as with the gripping suspense at the start of the finale, calling up faint echoes of the symphony’s beginning.

As is true just about everywhere else in this work, that quiet couldn’t last for long, and grew quickly into a roaring, majestic din. Precise execution played a major role in the success of this performance—even where Bruckner’s dense orchestration was at its thickest, every individual element was perfectly clear, using specific articulations to fill out the details of Barenboim’s brilliantly structured interpretation. As long as that combination of energy and tightness continues, this week at Carnegie Hall should be a memorable one, as the orchestra works its way through the rest of the Bruckner cycle.

The Staatskapelle Berlin continues its Bruckner cycle on Tuesday with Symphony No. 5 and Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major (K. 297b) for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, and Orchestra.

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