Lupu in, Beethoven out for one night with the CSO

By David Bashwiner

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Daniel Barenboim, conductor

Radu Lupu, piano

Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a

Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31

Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 (Emperor)

February 14, 2003

This past weekend’s concert program with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented works by three well known Viennese masters: Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, and Arnold Schoenberg. The first half of the program delivered sets of variations by the younger of two composers: Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a, and Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31. In the second half of the program the orchestra responded with sage advice from the wise old master: Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73.

By far the most stunning of the weekend’s offerings were the scintillatingly complex gems of Schoenberg’s elaborations upon an elusive theme. Begun in 1926 and completed in 1928, the Variations represent a point in Schoenberg’s career in which his 12-tone technique had matured to the point of becoming truly musical, not merely structural. The series is not meant to be heard, and the audience is not to think that it is missing anything by being ignorant of its esoteric underpinnings. Rather, it is invited to listen in wonderment through the newly liberated channels of communication available between composer and audience. The orchestra is a wild, unkempt beast under the command of this Viennese master, and he rides without a saddle.

The Variations can be characterized on the whole as a gradual crescendo, such that before the finale, only at the ends of the third and fifth variations are hints given as to the intensity of power the orchestra is capable of producing under this composer. Until this point, one follows the interplay of dialogues between the various families of instruments, and between soloists and combinations of instruments. Throughout the fifth variation, for instance, the cello forms a constant middleground development of the theme (also originally presented in the cellos), while the foreground becomes a stage for competition among high melodic violin writing and shorter, more exasperated responses from high woodwinds.

With this complex work, Schoenberg not only demonstrates mastery but demands it of his orchestra as well. Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra must be commended for the sincerity with which they play what can come across as “difficult” music. It did not at all come across as difficult, however, and this is due to Barenboim’s supreme genius in the interpretation of the music of the 20th century, which this author thinks is the most remarkable of his many qualities.

The Brahms was equally well performed. Of course, it is a much simpler work, representing an earlier time in the development of orchestral composition, as well as an earlier phase in the life of a composer. Written in 1973, Brahms’ Variations precede the writing of the symphonies and follow his earlier phase of orchestral composition by 15 years. The variations can be seen as the pivotal work representing the new Brahms orchestral style.

The piece is introduced by the simply scored theme–actually borrowed from Pleyel, scholars now believe, not Haydn. Its unique rhythmic structure–a set of five bar phrases followed by a set of four–is surely what must have attracted Brahms, if not its equally compelling serenity and simplistic beauty.

The first variation begins with an explosion of cross-rhythmic arpeggiation, and we sense with urgency the contrast in compositional technique between Pleyel’s late-18th-century serenade and the fiery new symphonic style of the later-19th-century master. Variation Two presents the theme in minor, and the level of intensity in the music is upped a notch, while the third of the variations manages to dispel the excitement with its saccharine sentimentality (one characteristic of Brahms’ work to which I am admittedly aversely biased). The fourth variation is again engaging, drawing the work forth with elegantly spun threads of chromatic twine initiated in the violas and eventually taken hold of by the entire string section. At one point, the contrabasses join into the weaving of this thread and leave the rhythm temporarily suspended until they again reclaim the role of churning out the dotted quarter-note pulse.

Barenboim’s conducting is refined and dignified, a left hand rising now and again, as he simply but resolutely opens a palm to the contrabasses, or to the horns, just barely visible over the heads of the violinists. In the last variation and the finale, however, this reserve and gravity in Barenboim’s demeanor–in the Brahms in particular–appears to be the very force that prevents the orchestra’s propulsion into a truly uplifting conclusion. The performance is otherwise stunning.

At the end of the day, one comes to see the Schoenberg’s work as being not quite so different from that of Brahms, given what we might expect from the former’s nasty reputation for being insensitive to natural musical laws and so forth. In the end it is the earliest of these three Viennese masters’ works, Beethoven’s, which stands out as the sore thumb in the sequence. Schoenberg is not hopelessly modern in this performance. Rather, the Beethoven feels disappointingly ancient. It is this Schoenbergian quality or orchestration and composition, one begins to assume, for which the orchestra was made. The Brahms and the Beethoven, at least as performed this past weekend, are the mere stepping stones on the way to Schoenberg, points of repose and momentary beauty, but means to an end nonetheless, the end of which is in fact the same expressionist modernism which is so often condemned as being a perversion of the old.

For an ‘Emperor’ concerto, this performance was neither grand nor concerted, though experiencing the musicality of Lupu is worth the price of admission. Barenboim’s relationship with Lupu is evidently warm and communicative. One wishes, therefore, that in future Barenboim would consider engaging the soloist in a duet rather than accompanying him. Generally speaking, Barenboim’s musical sensitivity is of the highest grade, though it appears to be about as variable as the weather. His rapport with the soloist, at least in this case, could not be better. Why not, then, exchange a glance now and again, perk up an ear, even deign to descend from the podium during those passages in which the conductor has no notes to conduct, rather than continuing to beat the baton? And then, at the conclusion of the solo passage, spring back into action, in vigorous reply to what has just been said, whether it be in argument or agreement, contrast or confirmation? The whole third movement suffered from an incompatibility of tempos between the two concerting parties, Lupu rushing forth to the ends of phrases, Barenboim content to finish second. Such outstanding musical circumstances as the coming together of a fabulous conductor, pianist, and orchestra in a work by Beethoven could have been better used to musical advantage.

On Wednesday, February 26, Nikolaus Harnoncourt will be conducting a concert with the Vienna Philharmonic at Orchestra Hall. They will be performing Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, with Gideon Kramer as soloist, and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4.