Vienna Philharmonic in New York (2/Boulez)

Chamber Symphony No.2, Op.38
Piano Concerto, Op.42
Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6 [1928 Revision]
Symphony No.10 – Adagio

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 16 January, 2010
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Daniel Barenboim. Photograph: ©Kevin RogersThis was the second of three Carnegie Hall concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic. Daniel Barenboim is conducting the other two concerts, but here he was the piano soloist as Pierre Boulez led the orchestra in a program of music by Arnold Schoenberg, his pupil and protégé Anton Webern, and his mentor, Gustav Mahler, to whose memory Schoenberg dedicated his 1911 book “Harmonielehrer” (Theory of Harmony).

The roughly contemporaneous Webern (1906) and Mahler (1910) works that comprised the second half of the programme served well to contrast the late-romanticism of Mahler with the abandonment of conventional tonality by the composers of what came to known as the Second Viennese School, of which Schoenberg (its founder), Webern and Alban Berg (another Schoenberg disciple) were the most prominent. The two Schoenberg pieces that began the concert are among his later works, having been composed at the time of World War Two, when the composer was living in California. Both works harkened back to his earlier, more tonal, and somewhat neo-classical style, even though one of them (the Piano Concerto) employed the twelve-note system that he had devised in the 1920s.

Pierre BoulezSchoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.2 had its origins in a draft sketched in 1906, just after the composition of his first work in that form whilst he was still in his pre-serialism years. Although Schoenberg worked on it sporadically for several years thereafter, the piece lay uncompleted for decades until he turned back to it to fulfil a commission from the New Friends of Music in 1939. In the process of reworking the Second Chamber Symphony, Schoenberg expanded its ensemble from a chamber group to a full orchestra – just as he had done a few years earlier with his Chamber Symphony No.1. Nevertheless, there are numerous passages for small groups of instruments in which the orchestral version retains much of the character of Schoenberg’s original conception of it as a chamber piece.

Boulez, guiding the orchestra with steady gestures and careful control of dynamics, brought out with clarity the work’s fascinating melodic, harmonic and contrapuntal elements, which extend nearly to its limits the conventional tonality in which the work is rooted, yet without abandoning it altogether. In the first movement, marked Adagio, the VPO contributed brilliant solo and ensemble playing with noteworthy contributions by principals on flute, bassoon, trumpet, violin and cello, among others. The second movement began Con fuoco with a strong feeling of propulsion in a dance-like 6/8 meter, and ended Molto adagio in a much more serious vein and a return to the E flat minor with which the Symphony began.

Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto, although a twelve-note composition, has a decidedly tonal feel to it. This owes, in large measure, to Schoenberg basing the work on a very “soft” tone row – one with many consonant intervals such as thirds and fourths. Indeed, the row, which serves as the opening theme on the solo piano, closely resembles the first theme of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. The concerto is performed continuously, but with four distinct movements, for each of which Schoenberg had a programmatic concept: “Life was so easy” (Andante); “Suddenly hatred broke out” (Molto allegro); “A grave situation was created” (Adagio); and “But life goes on” (Rondo: Giocoso).

Barenboim’s playing generally tended to downplay the concerto’s gentler and more highly tonal aspects, emphasising instead its percussive and rhythmic elements, including some jazz-influenced passages. This was felt most strongly in the second movement scherzo, in which there were powerful contributions from percussion and brass as well as the double basses. The concerto’s widest emotional range comes in the Adagio, which begins with a plaintive passage for oboe and bassoon and a sad theme on the strings. The concluding movement built in intensity as thematic material from earlier movements reappeared along with variations on the genial rondo theme, bouncing back and forth between Barenboim and the orchestra. Boulez was the perfect accompanist in this rather complex work, meticulously meshing the orchestral playing with that of Barenboim (who played from a score). Barenboim offered as an encore Schubert’s Impromptu in A flat minor (D935/2).

In Boulez’s hands, Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra sparkled with crystalline clarity, with each instrument of the orchestra contributing its distinct timbre as brief phrases moved from one player or section to another. This ground-breaking 1906 composition (heard here in the composer’s 1928 revision, for a still large but reduced orchestra) felt quite accessible, despite the absence of any tonal anchoring and Webern’s use of small-scale musical fragments in lieu of traditional melodic themes.

Boulez ended the concert with a sensitive reading of the opening Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, only one of two movements of that work that was completed, more or less (the other being the third-movement ‘Purgatorio’), at the time of the composer’s death in 1911. This performance was based on the edition closest to Mahler’s manuscript (which had been edited for performance by Ernst Krenek in 1924 with Alban Berg’s assistance), to which Boulez rather assiduously adhered. He conducted with precision, attention to detail, and without extraneous emotionalism, allowing the orchestral voices to be heard with clarity and in excellent balance. The performance showed off wonderfully the Vienna Philharmonic’s fabled string-playing, beginning with the violas in the opening Andante and then the entire string section in the glowing principal theme that recurred repeatedly (often joined by the horns) to provide warmth and comfort following the strident and unsettling passages, many of which included icy flute and piccolo accents above high-pitched violins. It is interesting that Mahler’s dissonance in this tonal work seemed more jarring than most of those in the nominally atonal Schoenberg Piano Concerto.

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