Vienna Philharmonic in New York (3/Barenboim)

Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16 [1949 Version]
Notations: I–VII–IV–III–II
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 17 January, 2010
Venue: Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Daniel Barenboim. Photograph: ©Kevin RogersThe Vienna Philharmonic concluded a three-concert series at Carnegie Hall that juxtaposed landmark scores of the twentieth-century with seminal works by Beethoven and Wagner. The final concert, bringing together music of Schoenberg, Boulez and Beethoven, was conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The program was provocative – and startlingly uneven.

Barenboim is a committed champion of twentieth-century and contemporary works, and his way with the 1949 (second revision) of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces focused on and successfully exploited the unique sonorities of the Vienna Philharmonic. The palpable cinematic atmosphere of the opening movement ‘Premonitions’ and the freewheeling, rhapsodic ‘Obbligato Recitative’ that conclude the work made a particularly dramatic impact – and I have never heard an orchestra draw such beautiful, lyrical playing from the second movement, the pseudo-nostalgic ‘Yesteryears’ (Vergangenes, in German) while conveying a sense that there would be no turning back to the past.

Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim have been frequent artistic collaborators for decades, and Barenboim himself has been a strong exponent of the orchestral version of Boulez’s Notations. The original version of the work comprises twelve brief movements for piano from 1945 that show the strong influence of Boulez’s teacher Olivier Messiaen; in 1978 Boulez orchestrated the first four movements, and in 1998 the seventh – though ‘orchestration’ does not even begin to describe the musical extension and transformation the music has undergone. Boulez has greatly increased the length of each work, expanding extremely brief miniatures into rigorously structured larger forms, with complementary rich musical and harmonic elaboration. The orchestrations are often strongly reminiscent of Berio’s symphonic oeuvre (and occasional flashes of Ligeti); they also presage the sonorities, particularly the elaborations on single notes and sometimes-static, sometimes-scintillating chordal blocks, which permeate Boulez’s ensemble works of the 1980s and 1990s. Barenboim, who uses the ‘standard’ order of I-VII-IV-III-II, has programmed Notations with numerous orchestras, and conjured with impressive mastery a continuously transforming procession of fascinating sonorities and colors. Notation II is a particular tour de force, its unrelenting rhythmic pulse conveyed by eight percussionists and some of the most forceful music Boulez has written.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony followed the intermission, and it occurred to me that the last time I’d heard this work in a concert hall was some seven years ago. Barenboim shifted into a conducting ‘technique’ that looked like a cross between the gratuitous excesses of Leonard Bernstein and the evocative ministrations of Carlos Kleiber, in what seemed an attempt to bring a Klempereresque or Furtwänglerian approach to the work. There was some inexcusable ensemble lapses, particularly among the strings, in the first movement, whose coherence was further hindered by the slower tempo adopted each time the famous opening motto appeared. The second movement was the most successful of the four, though the tempo was a degree too slow and continuity undercut by phrasing that yielded a few too many excessive emphases. The third movement was well-paced, with pianissimos far quieter than is customary. Having heard this with other orchestras, I have to wonder if this pppp phenomenon was triggered by the introduction of the ultra-wide-dynamics of the compact disc. Barenboim caught me off-guard by not taking the repeat in the finale (it was in observed in the first movement), and the not-so-subtle tempo variations didn’t so much clarify the structure as bring the musical equivalence of jet turbulence.

The performance was also hampered by a serious balance issue – the single woodwinds seemed buried beneath a wall of string sound. The horns, however, were well-matched with the strings, and their excellent playing was the one consistently enjoyable and thrilling facet of a performance of the Fifth that was otherwise a near-complete miss.

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