Kremer, Barenboim audacious but not impenetrable

By Alexander Coppock

What set of nine pieces for orchestra has been rehearsed, recorded, performed, interpreted and reinterpreted more often than any other? Right. When Daniel Barenboim saunters on stage to make his mark, he has more difficulty with Beethoven than with anyone else because it’s been done, and done, and done. Even if they don’t, everyone knows Beethoven’s symphonies, and they know they can buy a performance on Amazon for $17.99 that will outplay Barenboim and his Chicago band any day. (Personally, I recommend Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic.)

Last Saturday, Barenboim gave a damn good showing. His Beethoven’s Seventh was crisp, clear, and conventional. Everything sounded as it should: the tempos were standard, note lengths were matched throughout the orchestra, and they were in tune. It’s tough to talk about the emotional impact of the performance because, by this point, everyone (audience included) is just going through the motions, albeit very pleasant motions. We all know this music through and through, and it’s lovely to hear it again and again, but the sex does drop off after 20 years of marriage. The CSO got a standing ovation, which is well within established concert-going parameters. The crowd can’t help itself; the concert wasn’t worth their time if they don’t standing-ovate.

Daniel Barenboim would call me cynical and disaffected—he would say, “At least I’m doing something to stop this parade of banalities.” Ah yes, Danny B. Daniel Barenboim’s interpretive stroke upon Beethoven’s Seventh (apart from the baton-thwack with which he graced the first violin’s stand—scripted?) was the original and unpredictable use of attacca.

Attacca is a musical marking placed at the beginning of a movement, meaning that no time should elapse between the previous movement and the current one. Composers like Shostakovich and Barber have written symphonies of four movements which run continuously from start to finish, marking each transition attacca. There are no attacca markings in the score of Beethoven’s Seventh.

Those pauses between movements! When the initiated know to cough and not to clap! Daniel robbed us of that pause between the first and second movements—a bold move, one that works harmonically, one that is rhythmically startling. Barenboim knows that music is about setting up expectations and subverting them, and did he! And again, between the second and third movements, no pause. Aha, we said, he’s going to play the whole piece through, no stopping and starting, an interesting perspective on musical unity and wholeness. We were ready for him the last time, between the third and fourth movements.

Between the third and fourth movements, Daniel Barenboim puts down his hands, fishes out a hanky to mop his brow, and takes a nice long break. The audience shifts uncomfortably; they know they’ve been caught. In my opinion, this was all a childish joke—from a purely musical standpoint, if you are going to do an attacca, it makes the most sense to do it between the third and fourth movements; they work the best together. But this joke is what sets Barenboim apart; this is what he had to add to the history of Beethoven’s Seventh. Congratulations. You got me.

On the first half of Saturday’s concert, we heard Gidon Kremer join the CSO for the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s Concerti Grossi Nos. 5 and 6. I have less to say about them, because I understand them less, and what I do have to say will be less snide, probably for the same reason. These pieces are harsh and long; they give you little to hang on to and grasp. Expectations are so subverted that they are never even set up. I can’t say that I enjoyed them, and that bothers me, because they were clearly very well played. I got the sense that I could love this music if I submitted myself to it for long enough—and maybe I will, but I cannot be sure that the reward will merit the effort. Obviously this is the problem of “difficult” poetry and “difficult” art in general, but the theories concerning why I don’t like that art put me off as well. What do you do, dear reader, when you know you might love something but don’t yet?

Here’s something I tried when I needed, for social reasons, to like Sonic Youth. I tried to listen past the incredible dissonance, the bad intonation, the anger for anger’s sake (that’s how I heard it originally), to find just one aspect of Daydream Nation that I could appreciate. I focused on that one aspect and tried to understand why it was where it was, what was necessary about it. Like an infection, that fleck of good music spread to whole minutes of music, and then to songs, and then to the album itself. Granted, most of the rest of Sonic Youth still repels me, but now I appreciate Daydream Nation (and Sonic Nurse—wow.)

Tough to do this on the fly, and the fly was all I had on Saturday. This is what I could find amidst the staggering sweep of incomprehensibility: In the fifth of Schnittke’s Concerti Grossi, he employs an offstage piano. The piano is amplified and projected into the hall by a small speaker onstage. The sound of the piano was obviously different from one played inside the hall, but that was not what was most striking about it. The offstage piano had an authority that no instrument onstage had, an infallible presence. The sound came from nowhere and everywhere; it was very eerie. I imagine that a recording of the piece couldn’t quite capture this effect, but live, it was very powerful.

So the answer is: Listen to Schnittke as often as you do Beethoven. He’ll become old hat, and Daniel Barenboim will have to turn some other trick to interest us. How about an offstage conductor?