January 20, 2004

Barenboim can't get Schumann piece off the ground

It is, ultimately, about learning to fly. Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor famously begins with a flash and a surprising call to attention. It is followed by a chord sequence—almost hysterical in its punctuated rhythm—on the piano. We then switch over to the elegiac, silently disturbed main theme. One statement by the orchestra, one by the piano. Then the exercises can begin. A barely audible sound wave begins to emerge from the nether regions of each participant. The layers build up, the ground starts to move more flexibly and urgently. The sound swells, the flutes join the strings, and the piece acquires an unbounded energy, an energy that needs no further impulse from the outside, but drives itself to ever-new heights on its own accord. The informed may recall the opening of Wagner's Rheingold; the wretched will no doubt be reminded of the beginning of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto.

It is also about learning to fly in another sense. The excitement we experience in Schumann's Piano Concerto is one that was already old during his lifetime. It is the excitement of the early romantics about Kant's Third Critique. In his treatment of aesthetic experience, Kant had suggested that in the experience of fine art, we were somehow rationally active in our minds without following the strict rules of logical or scientific reasoning. In the "free play of the imagination," Kant seemed to recognize not something irrational, but something rather more like an unconstrained, higher way of being rational.

This was all the romantics needed to hear. For them, it had all along seemed that art must be a nobler, more ultimately human activity than the cool-headed application of abstract logical principles in science or mathematics. Art was the only means by which to grasp the "thing in itself," that is, to express and get at the ultimate point of the universe, to show, as Goethe's Faust says, "what holds the world together in its innermost." And so art in general was a way of learning to fly: using imaginative reason to overcome reason, venturing beyond the ordinary rational ground of being, beyond traditional and established rules without falling into the nothingness of mere unreason.

For the composers at Schumann's time and before, it was about learning to fly with and within the sonata form. There were other forms at hand, of course. But no other musical form was as suitable to the sentiment that art should be an expression of individuality—that it should present some kind of full-fledged narrative about the creation and self-creation of the artist. The neat scheme of presenting one theme, then another, then playing them off against one another, then presenting them again, seemed rather artificial and constraining—although once well established by the efforts of Haydn, Mozart, and many other composers.

Beethoven's solution, developed through years of struggle with the form, was to make the formal character of the form disappear. In Beethoven's greatest works, there is, strictly speaking, no form that abstractly imposes itself on the content. The content itself produces the form in and out of itself. The material is arranged such that a kind of "sonata-logic" emerges as if by accident.

This, however, was not Schumann's style of trying to fly. The Piano Concerto is a fascinating example in this regard. From an analytic perspective, the opening movement presents a perfect sonata form, full with exposition, development, recapitulation and a virtuosic cadenza. But this is not what the work sounds like. It sounds, rather, like a grand musical fantasy. Themes and episodes seem to merge into one another not by a Haydnesque logic of thematic development, but rather by imaginative association. The logic of connection is a poetic one, one of moods and musical colors (so it is no surprise that Schumann initially intended to publish this movement as a Phantasie-Konzert, a fantasy-concerto). The form, then, is double-layered: on the level of appearance, we find a romantic fantasy; underlying, it is the classical sonata structure. Schumann overcomes, goes beyond the sonata form, without losing it. In effect, he hides the form from the listener, following the rules of older composers while giving the semblance that he is free from all rules.

How unfortunate, then, that last Thursday night Schumann's great musical bird-flight brought to mind rather a lame duck struggling to get off the ground. There was grand pathos in the playing of the Berliner Staatskapelle (Berlin State Opera's orchestra, one of the many ensembles directed by Daniel Barenboim). There was some beautiful simplicity and sagacity in Lupu's interpretation. But the spirit of Schumann's "Florestan"—that quirky fictional figure always ready to cause a ruckus—was entirely absent. In the passage I alluded to above, nothing moved. No excitement and youthful enthusiasm was put into motion. Instead, ponderousness prevailed, contrasted by violent outbreaks of an insufficiently fine-tuned orchestra. Sections that might have been ponderous, such as the slow movement, were instead passed over inattentively. Unfortunately, there was more of the same after the intermission. In its unbounded enthusiasm, the orchestra was often merely noisy. Only the slow third movement received a properly profound treatment. With such great source material, it's too bad the Berliner Staatskapelle was unable to take flight.