At Carnegie Hall, Daniel Barenboim is conducting a Bruckner cycle: a cycle of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. Never before has this been done in America. So said Sir Clive Gillinson, the chief executive at Carnegie Hall, in a post-concert talk.
The orchestra is the Staatskapelle Berlin, of which Barenboim is the music director. On Friday night, he also served as pianist. Though the program finished with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2, it began with a Mozart piano concerto, that in D minor, K. 466. Barenboim “play-conducted,” i.e., both played and conducted (from the keyboard). He has done this all his career.
And I have long complained about it—play-conducting, that is. My rap goes like this: Play-conducting is a stunt and a conceit. It causes both playing and conducting to suffer. It causes the pianist to alter the way he plays—because he does some conducting, some leading, through his playing.
Of course, the pianist conducts, full-out, when his hands are free. I always liken this to looking for your car keys under a streetlight. It is merely convenient. An orchestra may have an equal need of conducting—of leadership—when the pianist’s hands are not free!
Anyway, no one listens to my rap—rightly so, I’m sure—and I will proceed with my review . . .
At the outset of the Mozart, the orchestra made a dark and hollow sound. This was interesting. Barenboim, in his playing, did some good and musical things. This is only natural. He also did some rushing, like a student. And he committed a number of technical muffs. Moreover, I would have had him sing out, from time to time.
And then there was this: Barenboim, when he is not at his most assured, technically, goes in for some weird emphases. Some odd accents and such. I believe he does this in compensation. He bulls his way through, like a maestro too lofty to sweat the details. The more fumbling he is, the more authoritative he acts. There was some of this on Friday night.
Ultimately, this first movement was dull, in my judgment. It had nowhere near the impact it ought to have.
For the second movement, the Romance, Barenboim selected just the right tempo. Or perhaps I should say he felt it. He also had a sure sense of the rhythm of the music. This movement reflected good sense, from beginning to end.
And the closer, the Rondo? Barenboim put a weird accent on the first note of the main figure. I think of this as more a pick-up note. But Barenboim stressed it, and I should stress that he knows roughly 500 times more than I know about these matters. I should also point out that he was consistent: committing that odd accent each time the figure came up.
When he had a chance to conduct the orchestra—a proper chance—he lit a fire under it. I have this complaint, however: the concluding D-major section felt fast to me. I think its appearance should be like the brightening of a day. It should have a sunshiny felicity. It did not have that quality in this performance.
In the Bruckner symphony, Barenboim was a master. He shaped the symphony with understanding and musicality. I should really say that he allowed the music to have its natural shape—the shape that Bruckner imagined and intended. For the most part, the Staatskapelle Berlin was up to it. It could not summon ideal warmth in the slow movement. But it did almost everything else.
Let me pause to note that this slow movement was the second movement on Friday night, not the third. You hear it in either position.
The Scherzo, which took the third position, was effective, especially in its trio: that sighing C major. I thought of an oxymoron: “happy poignancy.”
For my money, the Finale was a letdown, but I regard this movement as relatively weak anyway. (I should emphasize “relatively.”) Nonetheless, the damage had been done—or rather, the opposite of damage had been done: this was a first-rate Bruckner experience.
Post-concert speeches are preferable to pre-concert speeches, I think. Pre-concert speeches will kill an evening from the get-go.
After this concert, Sir Clive came out with microphone in hand. He noted that it was the sixtieth anniversary of Daniel Barenboim’s Carnegie Hall debut. Fourteen years old, Barenboim was the concerto soloist, the piano soloist, with the Symphony of the Air, conducted by Stokowski. He played Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1.
That was January 20, 1957: the day of Eisenhower’s (second) inauguration. And this night, last Friday night, was the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration.
For several minutes, Sir Clive heaped praise on Barenboim, for his various activities, musical and otherwise. Then he handed the mike to Barenboim.
After some musical remarks—and charming they were—Barenboim launched into politics. The plaint was the usual one, the age-old one: politicians and governments in America ignore the arts. Underfund the arts. Starve the arts. Boo-hoo, and blah blah.
My little article here is not the time or place to engage in this big debate. But I will say this: A free society is generally a prosperous society, and, in America, individuals and their “little platoons” accomplish a great deal, quite apart from governments (local, state, or federal). And Americans have accomplished an extraordinary amount in the arts.
All of my life, people from all over the world—from every corner of the earth—have come here to study, perform, teach, and have their careers. Why? Are they stupid? Why do they choose to leave hearth and home to spend their lives in this desert for the arts?
Listen to me, chillen: people vote with their feet. Always have, always will. Don’t listen to what they say. Watch what they do.