Vienna Philharmonic in New York (1/Barenboim)

Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)
Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Variations for Orchestra, Op.31

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 15 January, 2010
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Daniel Barenboim. Photograph: ©Kevin RogersIn classical programming it sometimes seems as if the same components are continually re-shuffled. Less than a year after its last visit in March 2009, the Vienna Philharmonic was back in New York for a series of three concerts. Instead of Zubin Mehta, this time Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez alternated on the podium – as they had done here in May during Staatskapelle Berlin’s Mahler cycle. And like the Berlin Philharmonic’s Carnegie Hall programming of last November, a work by Arnold Schoenberg’s was included each evening – and it isn’t even an anniversary year.

Barenboim is one of many conductors who have gone back to using antiphonal seating for the violins, doubtless in recognition of the fact that most music in the standard repertoire was conceived for such an arrangement; contrapuntal interplay between the violin sections becomes much clearer this way. In addition, Beethoven also frequently writes dialogues between the strings and woodwind. However, by pitting a large string section against single woodwind, they were drowned out in all but the softest sections. The Vienna Philharmonic justly takes pride in its burnished, glowing string sound, but when it isn’t balanced by equally powerful winds, the clarity of Beethoven’s thought suffers.

In Barenboim’s hands the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony turned into a most lyrical, Romantic piece, much more reminiscent of Schubert than Beethoven. From the very first bar, his evocative conducting resulted in slight ensemble problems, eventually mitigated by the incisive work of leader Rainer Honeck. All edges were softened, the work spun forth in long lines, which worked best in the outer movements and in ‘Scene by the Brook’. In the scherzo the unique sound of the Vienna horns lent an appropriately rustic character to the dance of the country-folk. However, there was little bounce to it, and the ensuing ‘Thunderstorm’ lacked bite.

Due to a last-minute change in programme order, the ‘Prelude and Liebestod’ from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” opened the second half. The VPO being essentially an opera orchestra, we were treated to an idiomatic performance rich in both nuance and sumptuousness of sound. Although the ‘Liebestod’ would have benefitted from a less vigorous, more languishing approach, the climax and transfiguration were well conceived and effective.

Barenboim was at his best in the Schoenberg. Conducting this complex work from memory as well with great precision, he elicited a detailed and colorful performance. The sections of the work were both put into a larger context and individually characterized, with well-played contributions from the various soloists. Although some audience members chose to leave before and during the performance, it elicited thunderous applause from the vast majority who appreciated it. Barenboim dedicated his encore to those who left, and those who stayed – Johann Strauss II’s Thunder and Lightning Polka.

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