Prom 63: 7th September – Chicago Symphony 1

Photograph of Daniel Barenboim by Cordula Groth

Overture to Tannhäuser
Elliott Carter
Symphony No.1 in D

Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 7 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There are times when an orchestra is so famous that they could play ’Frère Jacques’ badly and still get a standing ovation. As the last chords fell, tolling the demise of Wagner’s overture, I feared the worst. Two curtain calls, a brass section at a loss to find the volume control … and Barenboim gets two curtain calls! I have to blame the heat; once again it was a hot evening.

Elliott Carter is now the granddaddy of American composers; at the age of 93 he remains as prolific; in 1999, as he entered his tenth decade, he wrote his first opera, What Next? You may well ask. Partita (1993) does not mirror the 18th-century suite. Carter means something different, namely a “match or a game for players and teams”. From the opening two chords (lowest instruments at first followed by the highest) the match is on – the quasi-harmonic melodies fragmented and passed around various sections of the orchestra in a manner not unlike that of a football match, which was Carter’s inspiration for the use of the word. The game is fast and furious, played with the utmost skill by the CSO, expertly coached by Barenboim. Cor anglais and clarinets (E flat and bass) battle: the cor – the bore, red-faced and insistent – plays a simple tune while clarinets jostle for supremacy. The end may seem inconclusive, which it is – a further two movements written later make up Carter’s Symphonia.

Mahler’s epic First Symphony, once designated ’Titan’ by its composer, signalled a return to Teutonic romanticism. Dispensing with the score, Barenboim was firmly on home territory. The orchestral layout, with divided strings and horns made perfect sense and leads me to wonder why orchestras insist on placing their loudest instruments (namely the brass section) up high where they are the most pronounced. Other orchestras please note! The trumpets, which should “be placed at a distance” at the opening, were sufficiently far enough back-stage to match the pianissimo of the strings. Sadly the audience did not realise that coughing would ruin this perfect balance. Dispensing with the ’Blumine’ movement in the revised version (which I regret), Mahler’s Ländler second movement was safe in Barenboim’s hands; he took the marking ’Kräftig bewegt’ (robust and agitated) literally, a little faster than it is often heard. After a reflective pause, specified in the score, the third and fourth movements are linked – a point that took some snoozing members of the audience by surprise. Barenboim had the trumpets play muted in the third movement, at figure 5, which is not in the score; although this made them quieter, the sound was detrimentally changed.

There was no encore – Barenboim apologized and blamed the close proximity of the ensuing late-night concert. It could be argued that programming should allow an encore or two. However, I felt afterwards that I didn’t really want anything else; Mahler One is a difficult act to follow.

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