February 18, 2005

Haydn, Boulez, and Bartók: Perspective is everything

Every story has several interpretations. One could choose to look at the story of the ant and the grasshopper from the perspective of Aesop or Somerset Maugham. The Aesopian perspective on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert last Friday would assert that the Haydn symphony (which opened the evening) was poorly rendered and artistically unnecessary. In the context of the luminous Boulez and whimsical Bartók that followed, it seemed suspiciously like a programming gimmick, perpetrated by a hooded and cloaked management motivated by a desire to pontificate to the masses.

That line of commentary would be valid, insufferably defensible, and—frankly—rather dull. Instead, what if we take the diametrically opposite viewpoint, and look at this concert as Wilde, Thurber, O. Henry, and the other immortal contrarians of our times might have? What if we start with the premise that the program, as well as its execution, was a product of conscious intent, and see where such a line of analysis leads us? What if we follow the white rabbit?

The piece that opened the concert was Haydn's Symphony No. 95. A purely technical analysis of its rendition would reveal that it was hardly inspired. The renowned strings of the CSO were out of tune, grainy and hardly euphonious. Their tone was spectacularly compounded by boredom and venom, with a rawness that a fine orchestra can only achieve with difficulty. The fermatas, contrasts and inflections of the first movement were understated to the point of being non-existent.

Things improved slightly toward the end of the second movement, but the matter-of-fact treatment of the lyricism made Haydn appear a fussy old man who was trying to sing after 94 years of bellowing at the winds. The rhythms and staccatos in the third movement were crisply done, and the fourth movement…well, it existed. It was a nice rendition of Haydn that one might chance upon in a department store music section, played by some obscure orchestra led by an abstruse conductor, nestled between Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music and Norah Jones.

The piece that followed was Boulez's immortal Notations. If this concert were being heard and not seen, it would be difficult to believe that it was the same ensemble. The apathy and indolence of the Haydn were universes away from the intensity, passion and brilliance that the orchestra brought to this piece. The contrast was as extraordinary as it was explosive.

The orchestrations of the Notations are quite different from the etched 12-bar pencil sketches that Boulez wrote at the onset of his career. Boulez orchestrated them much later—Barenboim premiered four of the fragments in 1980—and these versions seemed to have taken on a life of their own. The overall structure is preserved, but the sharply outlined caricatures have developed into full-scale studies of complex, subtle characters often shocking in their realism.

Last Friday's concert presented five fragments, notations I-VI and notation VII. These were breathtaking pieces, each entirely self-contained. The Bacchanalian frenzy of the second piece lay in stark contrast to the ascetic first, and Barenboim stirred the players of the CSO into heights of restraint and depths of expression. The percussion section was scintillating, with the strings achieving an astounding level of discrete homogeneity. They were still particulate, but in accord with each other's conception, if not execution. The resulting timbres were just astringent enough to be interesting and mellifluous enough to be captivating. Barenboim balanced the entire rendition upon this line with consummate mastery.

The fourth notation was perhaps the most striking. It seemed to encapsulate the debate between the French Neoclassical idiom of the 1920s and '30s and the traditions that preceded it: declamatory, allusive Wagnerism and iridescent Impressionism. The piece begins with a single, open note that shimmers in the orchestral silence. The cymbals are left uncovered, so that the pitch produces sympathetic vibrations (which blur the harmonies ever so slightly, hinting at untold harmonic depths underneath).

Then, a second note and a third note join the first, diverging imperceptibly until they settle ambiguously at a semitone above and below the first. This wavering, inexpressibly fraught harmonic stretching seems to last an eternity. The tension escalates past conception, and the illations become almost unbearable until…a sharp downward thrust from the violins cuts through the tapestry, crying out—as Jean Cocteau did—"Enough!" To elaborate: "Enough of clouds waves, aquariums, water-sprites and nocturnal scents; what we need is a music of the earth, everyday one can live in like a house."

The remainder of the piece is filled with conflict and beset with progressions followed by regressions. The work is at once a manifesto of modernism and a ruthlessly pragmatic appraisal of the aesthetic difficulties modernism faces. Concreteness is achieved, and a melody is spun out—only to be subverted by a note that makes the chord achingly Debussyan. A brilliant passage suddenly swerves into an orgy of Wagnerism, necessitating complete reconstruction. After desperate struggles, the neoclassical spirit triumphs, exalts, and claims the universe as its own. This was probably one of the most powerful moments of the concert. The CSO reflected the power and, yes, the pathos of complete victory. There's no one worthy enough to oppose anymore. Then, the music turns around and seeks reconciliation with what was previously a deadly foe, going backwards into shadowy harmonies.

The ending is a perfect mirror of the beginning. The harmonies implode into elusiveness until three glowing notes remain, clarifying into a single searing note, thus regaining the individuality they had lost at the commencement of the piece. In a sense, the tradition is not only vanquished but metaphysically obliterated. The note no longer has to be rescued—it finally exists.

After that superb rendition, the CSO seemed to gather itself, pause dramatically, and then launch into the furious seventh notation—unearthing layers of rage, fury, desperation and doom. "And he piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down…" Boulez created the perfect picture of Ahab, and the CSO vivified it.

After that spectacular set of pieces, there came Bartók's quirky first piano concerto. Barenboim was the soloist here, and played with a gritty technique that would not have been out of place in Schoenberg. The concerto parodies the grandiose opening of Strauss's Zarathustra with the timpani, trumpet and cymbals. Bartók takes up the motif, expanding, mocking, and morphing it into something entirely unrecognizable. Boulez's conducting was mesmeric. The orchestra responded to him absolutely; it was as though he were conducting the recital of a very close friend.

If we were to now go back and look at the Haydn in the context of the entire concert, even the execrable performance seems to make sense. In a sense, Haydn represents the spirit of organized and precise classicism—beauty wrought of form and form wrought of structure. He represents the start of the great traditions of classical music that ultimately led to Wagner, Debussy and Strauss.

Therefore, Haydn's 95th symphony is an encapsulation of everything Boulez and Bartók stood against. When one looks back and contemplates the CSO's performance of the Haydn, it appears as though the orchestra provided physical illustration of the threadbare quality of classicism and the extent to which traditional idioms were prolonged through vampiric morphosis—until the time of Wagner, when it finally crossed over into crisis. They illustrated the worn, haggard aspect of classical music in the early 1900s; that time of exquisite uncertainty in which the fragility of classical music as an art form suddenly became apparent. They exhibited the state of affairs into which giants like Satie, Stravinsky, Boulez and Bartók had intrepidly stepped and forged new universes and perspectives—causing classical music to live again.