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Monday, January 23, 2017

Concert Review: The Master's Singer

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin play Mozart and Bruckner.
Richard Wagner (left) greets Anton Bruckner in Bayreuth in 1873.
Silhouette by Dr. Otto Böhler from Wikipedia Commons.
The nine-concert Carnegie Hall marathon featuring conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin reached its first milestone on Saturday night. This concert, the third in the series and the last of the opening triptych featured Mr. Barenboim leading his forces in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24, paired with the Symphony No. 3 of Anton Bruckner. This symphony bears the nickname "Wagner." It was one of two works that Bruckner brought to Bayreuth on an 1873 visit, where he and Richard Wagner discussed music over many a pint of beer.

Bruckner's Third is a symphony with a shaky reputation. It is a sprawling, ambitious work, in which the composer continued the difficult process of finding his own voice. Making things more difficult on that front was the decision to lace together the pages of the Third with melodic threads and leitmotivs borrowed from at least five of Wagner's operas. This choice drew the hostility of the anti-Wagner faction in Vienna, and the stage was set for a total fiasco at the symphony's 1877 premiere.

That disaster was ensured when the engaged conductor (one Johann von Herbeck) died a month before the premiere, leaving Bruckner to the task of conducting the first performance of his own symphony. Alas, Bruckner was more suited to the role of organist and composer than maestro, and the work's already amorphous shape was stretched beyond recognition or comprehension. The hall emptied during the performance, and the orchestra, unenthusiastic about the new piece to begin with, abandoned the stage as soon as the fourth movement ended, leaving a depressed Bruckner isolated and alone.

Saturday night's concert was a much happier occasion. Mr. Barenboim began (as he has with all of these concerts) with a Mozart piano concerto, conducted from the keyboard. Here, his choice was the No. 24, an epic struggle between darkness and light that ends in the shadows as the minor key has the final say. It is one of the composer's most epic and heroic works in a genre that he himself popularized both as a means of self promotion and economic surety.

Mr. Barenboim played the complex solo part with clear awareness of this great legacy. Against the noble, downward theme that opens the work he discoursed the piano part a fluidic ease, submerging himself in the texture of the orchestra only to burst from beneath the waves. Even in the knottiest moments, he kept one hand moving on the keyboard and stood, still playing to cue an oboe or a brass part with his left. The total focus continued in the slow movement and the theme and variations finale, the latter shot through with grim thematic ideas. 

And then it was time for Bruckner. This symphony opens with a series of string arpeggios that give way to a downward fanfare, itself a second cousin to the much more cheerful theme that opens Wagner's Die Meistersinger. There are other quotes throughout, with the chugging basses recalling the Nibelungs from Das Rheingold and a leaping interval that recalls Wotan's rage at his daughter Brunnhilde. But these themes are never obvious; they inhabit the orchestration in an almost subconscious way and you really have to be looking hard to catch all the references.

Following the disastrous concert of 1877, Bruckner  put the Third through the tortuous revision process that is almost as well known as the composer's unique musical style. The revised version was heard here, with most of the less oblique Wagner references were slashed from the score, although the slow movement references the Act I Prelude of Tristan und Isolde over its spinning length. Mr. Barenboim unleashed the power and fury of the orchestra in the Scherzo. The finale that followed incorporated melodic ideas from the first three movements, bringing them together in a coherent statement of power and intent.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.