Barenboim gets sloppy while Tallis shows him up

By Nicholas Betson

In the last two weeks I had the opportunity of attending greatly varying concerts–one consisting of late Romantic German “tone poems” (the term here widely construed), and the other of English Renaissance polyphony from the late 16th century. Uniting them here in one review seems to give short shrift to both, but hopefully something positive can arise from a disparate comparison, which is something that both concerts thrived (or could have thrived) upon.

By far the finest piece of Daniel Barenboim’s concert was Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. Crafted with an outlook to the large, overriding epic narrative and with careful illumination of Strauss’s wonderfully glowing themes, the performance left one with the feeling that Barenboim has found a home in the Straussian aesthetic. Less successful were the first two pieces on the program, Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night and Mahler’s Five Rueckert Lieder. Like Strauss’s tone poem, Schoenberg’s deals with “transfiguration,” and both give an inordinate amount of weight to their “endings” (the entire last half of Transfigured Night has always had the feel of a coda for me).

Barenboim conducted this piece from memory, and as a result, the performance seemed to lack in detail. The oversight of crucial pauses and dynamic markings was not helped by the constant bad intonation from the soloists and ensemble as a whole (perhaps the string orchestra felt lost without the oboe to which they could tune). The performance of Schoenberg’s work seemed too much in the shadow of the conception of Strauss that was presented later in the evening.

Again, Barenboim successfully communicated the pieces as one large vision, one epic story in tones. However, he led the string orchestra–which is an augmentation (by Schoenberg) from the original string sextet for with the piece was composed–as though it were Strauss’s large orchestra. In doing so, he did not pay attention to the small-scale detail that this piece thrives on, and how it imprints the mannerisms of the individual themes into its subject. A better performance would do well to remember the work’s origin as a sextet; it was not without reason that Schoenberg wrote his great tone poem for the seemingly tawdry ensemble of six strings before going on to write his anti-tone poems for a full orchestra, the Fuenf Orchesterstuecke, op. 16.

Mahler’s “Liebst du um Schoenheit” (“If you love for beauty”), performed in the second half of the program, serves as a good example of the structural importance that momentary detail can carry. Rueckert’s poem consists of three strophic verses, each of which proposes a reason why one might love (for beauty, youth, or treasure), and then deflects the object of love in favor of some fantastic, unrealistic one (the sun, spring, or a mermaid). Mahler sets these verses accordingly, with each climaxing on a suspension, which both emphasizes the “impossible object” of the stanza, and marks the highest note of the phrase.

The song’s last strophe culminates in the absurd “If you love for love, then me do love,” notably shifting the syntax so that the verb “love” takes the place of the former rejected objects. The bewildering formalism of this formulation (“loving for love”) perhaps has a close analogue in Kant’s categorical imperative, insofar as the solution seems to provide little connection to a specific course of action, even though the final imperative is anything but ambiguous (“love me”). Mahler sets climatic “love” again as a suspension, but this time changes a crucial detail and lands on the most dissonant chord of the piece, an augmented triad (a chord which can be seen as signifying the breaking point of diatonic tonality). Furthermore, all of the climatic suspensions are marked with differing articulation.

Whereas even Barenboim’s reading managed to catch the augmented triad, the variation in articulation is a detail that requires some self-consciousness in performance. Above all, this song is preoccupied with its strophic formalism, finding in it a tension (or lack thereof) that can only be redeemed and made meaningful through detail. A performance that conceives of this piece as a conventional, naive song–as both the concert notes and last week’s did–necessarily misses its point.

It is difficult to make a transition from a concert of orchestral music written around fin-de-siecle Vienna to one consisting of music from the reign of Elizabeth I and her Chapel Royal, even though both environments are certainly historically rich. As someone who feels more at home with the music of Barenboim’s concert–a type that seems to emphasize processes, endings, and history in the works–the Tallis Scholars’ concert of Renaissance polyphony made the most sense when listened to in terms of history across the works. In this respect, numerous motets of the program by lesser-known composer Robert Parsons struck me as most interesting.

Parsons, the most represented composer on the Tallis Scholars’ concert, was a member of the “lost generation” of composers that fell between two of the more famous composers of the Queen Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal–Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. In the context of hearing all three composers in the concert, Parsons music acted as a mediation between Tallis more static polyphony versus Byrd’s more dynamic homophonic constructions. Inasmuch as his music made intelligible a contrast between Tallis and Byrd, I found his music also to be highly emotional in its own right, quite frequently employing very sensitive text settings.

The positive impression with which Parsons left me was no doubt due to the excellent presentation of his music by the Tallis Scholars, which was helped by their clear balancing and declamation of lines (which varied depending on where one sat in Rockefeller Chapel), and the exciting interplay between the different timbre of voices offered by the ten person ensemble. And while there are more opportunities to hear Daniel Barenboim as his annual spring residency continues for another three weeks, the appearance of the Tallis Scholars was a singular event, and one for which we should be thankful.