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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Concert Review: Voices in the Wilderness

The Staatskapelle Berlin takes on the Bruckner Second. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Leading from the piano: Daniel Barenboim. Photo © 2017 Staatskapelle Berlin.

When he was 14 years old, the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim made his Carnegie Hall debut on January 20, 1957,  playing the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Symphony of the Air under the baton of the legendary Leopold Stokowski. Last night, Mr. Barenboim, now 74, celebrated the 60th anniversary of that occasion with the Staatskapelle Berlin, bringing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 to that hallowed stage.

This was the second concert in Mr. Barenboim’s current project, pairing all nine of Bruckner's published symphonies (the "student" symphony in F minor and the D minor known as "Die Nullte" are not included) with the major concertos from the second half of Mozart's life. The Concerto No. 20 in D minor is the most epic and Beethovenian of these works. Doubling as conductor and soloist, Mr. Barenboim emphasized that quality, choosing to employ the first and third movement cadenzas created for the work by Beethoven during the German composer's career as a concert pianist.

This is a dramatic work, opening with a storm of sound that evokes the supernatural events of operas like Don Giovanni and Idomeneo. The orchestral tempest was answered with the piano, a lone warrior battling the wind, weather and wolves of the answering tutti. The cadenza crowned the epic first movement, with Beethoven's writing adding insight and depth to the overall work instead of the usual flashy ornamentation.

The slow movement could only be described as soulful, with Mr. Barenboim’s piano singing a still-sad song that eventually transformed into a hymn of hope. More heroics followed in the finale, as soloist and orchestra fought an uphill battle to a harmonious major-key concordance. The clarity and precision of the Staatskapelle players highlighted some of the more unusual and progressive ideas in this work. Such as a unique passage that seemed written for the piano, accompanied only by the bassoons.

When it premiered in 1873, Bruckner's Second was quickly nicknamed the "Symphony of Pauses" for this is where Bruckner developed his signature technique of inserting a long orchestral rest between sections of the first movement, giving the listener helpful sign-posts to navigate the expanded sonata form of the opening. Here, the Staatskapelle players made an excellent case for elevating this work to the repertory status enjoyed by its younger brothers, highlighting e rich sense of melody and invention that floods its first two movements.

The scherzo followed, with pounding brass and timpani stamping out the familiar "Bruckner rhythm" of three notes then two notes. This the composer's fourth completed symphony, the first where the qualities that are immediately recognized as "Brucknerian" may first be heard. The finale used the pauses again, to signal shifts between its large, complex segments, but each fortissimo and silence was followed by the croaking voice of a sarcastic old woman in the audience. At each rest, she chose to bleat "thank you" in a caustic tone, implying that she was grateful that the orchestra had temporarily ceased to play. If it bothered her that much, she could have left.

Following thunderous applause (from everyone, except presumably the aforementioned concertgoer) Mr. Barenboim was then introduced by Carnegie Hall executive and artistic director Clive Gillinson to commemorate the anniversary occasion. He then said some choice words, expounding on the sense of community created between orchestra and audience during get eh performance of a piece and urging those in attendance to support music, not for any perceived elitism but because it is indeed the lifeblood of society especially in the face of encroaching governmental darkness. In this writers opinion, he spoke well and true, and we should all listen.

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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.