Sunday, 20 May 2012

Barenboim/Wiener Mozart: so alt und doch so neu

Musikverein, 20/05/2012

Wiener Philharmoniker, Daniel Barenboim, Dieter Flury

Mozart: Symphony no. 39 in E flat major, KV 543
Ibert: Flute Concerto (1934)
Mozart: Symphony no. 41 in C major, KV 551 Jupiter

A programme similar to one fellow HIP sceptic Boulezian recently attended in London, though with Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic it’s not so much about rolling back tendentious tides as carrying on as if Mozart had never been reduced in such crass and undignified ways. But while with this orchestra one never expects to escape the sound of the past the weight of institutional tradition at least seemed lifted, and so, as it became clear in rather more unabashed terms, as to advance the cause of Mozart interpretation further in one morning than it has been in this city for many years.

What perfect balancing of power and grace to be found in KV 543! After the dissonances of the introduction – like looking into portals – a modernist reading seemed the likeliest continuation, but Barenboim’s attention turned back to the 18th-century, the spirit of which received truer representation than any period Mozart that could be named. From the Alberti bubbling of bassoons to phrases with gradually acquired bloom everything was assured and natural, and even the odd slips readily acceptable this time as ein Wesen des Orchesters – so often a poor Vienna excuse for lack of preparation and care, but in a performance with such thought given over to style the Philharmoniker permitting themselves to ‘relax’ from time to time somehow seemed to have its place. The discipline, however, of things happening together auf Knopfdruck, was generally there, as was exemplary transparency – I heard everything in the score including much detail in the winds that struggles to get through, and this with a generously full complement of strings (Barenboim couldn’t have asked for finer dynamic control). Power came rather as authority, by which I mean no euphemism for portly grandeur, but the understanding of what Mozart puts his tonic through and why he consolidates it the way he does.

Earlier in the week KV 550 had followed, but I went to one of the subscription concert performances with a solo spot for Dieter Flury (yes, that Dieter Flury) instead. The piece here, Jacque Ibert’s Flute Concerto, is not a work I have heard before but one which holds the attention divertingly enough. Piquant dissonances add colour to a ritmico but unmechanical first movement, an atmospheric second movement has the noble grace of Ravel in Tombeau mode tinged with stylings from Poulenc, and the third movement put me in mind, oddly enough, of Copland. Flury was fine, and evidently finds the piece worthy of a hearing – not always a communicative given with obscurities that get championed, it must be said – but the entire thing was lacking in artistry and generosity until one meagre floaty phrase at the end. Sorry Herr Flury, but at this level there are dozens upon dozens of flutists who can do what you do, and a good proportion of them women. All the interest here was in Barenboim’s direction, the score sounding considerably more sophisticated and impressionistic than the Les Six cookie-cutter piece it is.

The Jupiter did not quite achieve the unity of the previous symphony: the opening phrases of third and fourth movements were somewhat feeble in impact and that certainly at Barenboim’s prompting, though not an interpretive choice which paid off, I thought; and the unevenness in tempo throughout the third movement signalled the pursuit of flexibility gone awry – the basic tempo once Barenboim hit his stride, oddly late in the game, might have been established and maintained from the start rather than wheezing into life, and elasticity would have still been possible. But the things that went right vastly outweigh the reservations. For unbridled energy the opening of the first movement seemed to be throwing down yet another HIP gauntlet, though manifested here, as throughout this concert, as something behind the notes rather than a surface distortion. In any case Barenboim certainly wasn’t rushing things, with the antecedent-consequent construction of the opening put under no vice-like grip of periodicity – I always dread when that dotted consequent gets put through quasi-sequential paces over the dominant pedal for this very reason, but here an unbroken eight bar span made line of the phrase. Bassoons were, again, switched on for the doubling of the second subject, and the ludic Mozart who delights in free play was evidently never far away from woodwind minds both here and in the final movement. The third movement problems I have already mentioned, but the second could only be called sublime, horribly over-applied as that term is to this music, despite the sublime Mozart being predictably elusive to a modish period practice tendency to parody a misunderstood elevated style. Barenboim gave us the sublime in all the senses Mozart would have understood it and conceived in compelling dialectical terms: that which inexplicably overwhelms us, perceptible in something as small as a cello accent, either, depending on how you heard it, heightened the awe to come or portended firmamental clarity – Beethoven and Haydn in the balance here  only for a final state of elaborate simplicity, purely Mozartian, to shine through all the more inevitably. For the fugal close, again transparency, precision, sparks, but also depth of tone and plasticity of line – and, perhaps not to be taken for granted in the Jupiter, cause to remember that Handel, as Burney remarked, was not ‘the only great fughist exempt from pedantry’. One rarely experiences such satisfaction in Mozart, though Barenboim makes aspiring to a whole greater than conformity with current sensibilities look so easy, a simple case of refusing to accept that tradition  be that the reconstruction of historical conventions or Karajan’s Mozart style honed with the Symphoniker  establishes precepts. His Beethoven, Bruckner and Wagner are more anchored to time and taste, and show us that embracing possibilities past, present and future, to communicate in Mozart or indeed any composer a claim to universality is far from lightly done, though really results half as persuasive as this would be enough to indict the wretched fashion of selling the canon and ourselves short.

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