Variations for Orchestra, Op.31
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 5 November, 2005
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, concluded a three-concert visit to Carnegie Hall, Barenboim’s last concert here as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony, although neither Barenboim nor the orchestra is severing ties with New York. The CSO will continue its annual visits to Carnegie Hall, and Barenboim frequently appears in New York as soloist, accompanist, chamber musician, and conductor of other orchestras, including, later this season, Staatskapelle Berlin.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere in the hall reflected New Yorkers’ feelings of nostalgia and appreciation, but also regret that this extraordinary partnership is coming to a close, and the audience responded overwhelmingly to the orchestra and its outgoing director.
Great orchestras such as the CSO are in a constant process of self-renewal as successive generations of players gradually replace one another to sustain and build upon on the institution’s traditions. The orchestra’s accomplishments in this regard were amply on display during its New York visit, with outstanding performances by many of its principal players, including Larry Combs (principal clarinet since 1978), David McGill (principal bassoon since 1997), and Mathieu Dufour (principal flute since 1999), all of whom stood out in both the Schoenberg and Mahler pieces. But perhaps the most striking evidence of the CSO’s success at bridging generation gaps was the brilliant playing, particularly in the Mahler Fifth, of principal horn Dale Clevenger, who has occupied that post for nearly forty years, and the CSO’s fine new principal trumpet, Christopher Martin. New Yorkers have good reason to look forward with keen anticipation to future visits from the Chicago Symphony.
The choice of the Schoenberg Variations to precede the Mahler Fifth is interesting in a number of ways. Both composers had strong connections to Vienna and its musical tradition – and to each other. Mahler, the elder by fourteen years, championed the early works of Schoenberg and adopted him as a protégé. Schoenberg returned the favour by championing his mentor’s work after Mahler’s death in 1911. It was not until after World War I that Schoenberg’s serial method of composition began to take definitive shape, and the Variations for Orchestra, begun in 1926 and completed in 1928, was his first orchestral work to use his full-blown, twelve-note technique.
Although the absence of familiar consonant harmonies breaks sharply with tonal music, Schoenberg envisioned Variations for Orchestra as a continuation of the German-Viennese tradition that led up to and included the romanticism of Brahms and Mahler. He announces this connection with the musical past in the introductory section of the Variations by having the trombone intone the four notes that spell BACH in German notation, as well as by his use of the centuries-old theme-and-variations form. After the introduction, the cellos announce the principal theme, and nine variations follow, leading up to an extended finale.
Although Barenboim is no stranger to the Variations, he conducted from a score, no doubt owing to the work’s complexity and density. Schoenberg calls for a large orchestra, including a full complement of percussion instruments, and is replete with vivid and colourful instrumental combinations and a wide range of dynamic and rhythmic changes. One rarity is the use of a flexatone, a type of musical saw, which was wielded briefly but effectively by principal percussionist Edward Atkatz. For Schoenberg, this was the latest new instrument – it was patented in the early 1920s – but very few composers since have used it. Its clattering sound added an extra fillip to the highly percussive third variation, in sharp contrast to the chamber-music-like texture of the preceding one.
The CSO’s precise, colourful and powerful performance of Variations for Orchestra was enthusiastically received by the Carnegie Hall audience – so much so that the players seemed somewhat perplexed by the warmth of its reaction, leading one to wonder whether Schoenberg’s music gets this sort of reception in Chicago. After being called back to the stage for a third time, Barenboim had to lead the orchestra away for the interval in order to quell the ongoing applause.
Barenboim gave the Mahler Fifth a majestic, surging reading, maintaining a dynamic balance between soloists and orchestra and among the orchestra sections, allowing each to shine without overshadowing the others. Through tempo and phrasing, he impelled the symphony from its funereal outset toward its triumphant conclusion. In the opening movement, for example, when the principal ‘Trauermarsch’ theme makes its second appearance in the strings, Barenboim gave the grace notes a bit of extra emphasis that caused the phrase to surge forward. And, on a grander scale, his rendition of the opening segment of the second movement ably portrayed the surging and powerful forces implied by Mahler’s ‘stürmisch’ designation. This movement develops – but in a less sombre context – the funeral march theme, only to be repeatedly interrupted – either by returning to the movement’s stormy opening or by more jocular interludes. A majestic brass chorale anticipates the triumphant conclusion that lays three movements ahead, but sputters out here.
The third movement scherzo, which contrasts the country style of ländler dance rhythms with those of the more urbane waltz, provided a showcase for the principal horn, trumpet, and winds. Barenboim successfully evoked the movement’s sunnier tonality to create a bridge from the darker moods of the first two movements to the tenderness of the Adagietto and the soaring nobility of the finale. The sense of surging forward persisted even in the Adagietto fourth movement, with its delicate harp figures and lyrical strings, and strengthened in the final movement to what at times seemed an almost breakneck pace, although Barenboim did not rush the work’s triumphant closing passages.
The Carnegie Hall audience responded enthusiastically, calling Barenboim back to the stage five times, almost as if by dint of their applause his departure from the CSO could be averted, or at least delayed. Had he not again led the players off the stage, the applause might still be sounding.