Vienna Philharmonic/Barenboim in New York – 1

Symphony No.5 in B flat, D485
Symphony No.7 in E [Robert Haas Edition]

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 2 March, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

They do things differently in Vienna: there are extra instruments suspended from the music-stands of the first and second violins and the violas; the Philharmonic’s particular models of oboes and horns are unique to this orchestra; the Concertmaster, not the principal oboe, gives the A for tuning; and there are still only a handful of women in the orchestra, mostly not even tenured members.

While the last issue remains an outrage, a respect for tradition served the Vienna Philharmonic well in the first of its three-concert series in Carnegie Hall.

The Schubert was played with only a slightly reduced string section, using vibrato, antiphonally seated violins – and the orchestra displayed all the sensitivity of a chamber ensemble. Barenboim proved himself a traditionalist as well, eschewing the lean textures and fairly rigid pulse that the ‘historically informed’ musicians have made their trademark in favor of an ardent and nuanced performance. In a manner reminiscent of Carlos Kleiber, at times, Barenboim led by shaping phrases rather than giving every beat; he emphasized long lines, which was especially effective in the Andante con moto second movement.

This approach carried over into the Bruckner, where structural coherence is crucial to the understanding of this colossal work. Although the string section was not huge, using only 14 first violins, for instance (while the Berlin Philharmonic, say, would most likely opt for 18), the orchestra produced a very full, warm-bodied sound when called for, but also a delicacy one does not often hear in Bruckner. The shimmering violin tremolos in the opening section seemed to come out of nowhere, setting the perfect mood. Many conductors take a hands-off approach to this composer, letting the music ‘speak for itself’ and building ‘cathedrals’ of sound.

On this occasion, however, it was apparent from the very beginning that Barenboim’s interpretation was to be a very personal one. He imbued it with passion, choosing to bring out the emotional elements of Bruckner’s music instead of cloaking them with a sacred veil. Maybe it was this search for the drama in the piece that also led Barenboim to add a second timpanist for the extended roll on the low E at the end of the first movement. Similarly, he adopted the most prominent feature of Leopold Nowak’s edition, the cymbal crash and triangle roll at the climax of the Adagio, in what was otherwise a performance of Robert Haas’s version of the work. The scherzo was appropriately fast and bouncy, with an almost sensual trio; and, in the finale, Barenboim found just the right tempo to fit Bruckner’s instructions ‘Bewegt, doch nicht schnell’ (moving along, but not fast). This allowed for the contrapuntal elements to be clearly heard and for the chorale-like passages to have their proper weight.

After inexorably leading up to the huge climax of the movement came the only questionable moment of the evening – a huge pause, stretching Bruckner’s fermata well beyond anything one might expect. On the other hand, Barenboim managed to find just the right pacing for the structurally difficult ending, bringing this huge symphony to a very satisfying close.

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