June 6, 2003

Barenboim ends the season with Strauss and drang

Daniel Barenboim concluded his 2002-03 residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) this past weekend with a selection of works that embody the past and present of the Chicago Symphony: Edward Elgar's Serenade for strings, Elliott Carter's Of Rewaking (world premiere), and Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben.

Strauss completed the score for Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life) in 1898 and conducted the first performance himself in March of the following year. The work is the last of his great 19th century tone poems-pieces that are meant to musically portray a specific program. He had already composed musical portraits of heroic characters from works by Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Cervantes, as well as works based on the two legendary characters Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel. Strauss made it perfectly clear that the heroic subject of this latest piece was none other than himself: "I do not see why I should not compose a symphony about myself; I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander."

To that end, the piece opens with a grand 116-measure introduction to the character of The Hero (labeled specifically as such by the composer), marked by wide, sweeping melodies so characteristic of Strauss' tone poems. The remainder of the roughly 45-minute work is composed of episodes that portray the different characters and aspects of Strauss' life and work, including, among others, Strauss' critics (labeled The Hero's Adversaries), his wife Pauline (The Hero's Companion) and his own compositions (The Hero's Works of Peace), in which he quotes passages from his previous tone poems.

Past interpreters have regarded the piece as a "flagrant instance of Strauss' artistic egotism," but further investigation reveals that the issue of autobiography is more complex than the mere surface elements first suggest. The work deals with two rather important subjects in Strauss' life: the Nietzschean struggle between the individual and his outer and inner worlds and the preoccupation with the profundity of domestic love. The self-quotations that Strauss selects to insert into Ein Heldenleben do not function to remind the listener of the composer's past successes. Rather, each one concerns mostly love themes as they relate to Pauline, the hero's partner. This work, as Strauss' last tone poem of the 19th century, functions as a sort of artistic climax, representing both figuratively and literally the culmination of his career to that point.

The Chicago Symphony has long shared a close connection with Strauss, having presented the American premieres of three of his tone poems, including Ein Heldenleben in 1900. Concerning this composition, as one critic put it, the CSO "has virtually owned the piece for more than a century."

It is therefore fitting that Barenboim concluded his 2002-03 residency with this piece-a work that reflects the history and spirit of the CSO. Aside from a few flubbed notes in the horns, the orchestra performed flawlessly. The character of each episode was rendered perfectly, from the "snarling" oboes and "hissing" cymbals of the Hero's Adversaries, to the "flippant," "angry," and "nagging" lines of the violin solo portraying the composer's wife, Pauline (beautifully played by concertmaster Samuel Magad), to the brilliant passages for the brass section in the chaotic Battle Scene. However, despite the virtuosic precision of the orchestra, the rendition felt flat, lacking a true sense of dynamism and energy. Barenboim's propensity to drag the tempo at slower moments is one reason for this; or perhaps the orchestra's intimate familiarity with the work betrayed the ability to breath new life into it.

It seems that Barenboim generally associates musical drama and tension with slow tempos. This was particularly evident in the second of the three movements of the Serenade for strings. This Larghetto is indeed highly lyrical, but as a work for strings alone, the textural and timbral similarity, albeit quite expressive, only goes so far, such that other musical elements, like dynamics, rhythm, and tempo, become increasingly important. As in the Strauss tone poem, the forward-driving energy seemed to vanish as Barenboim stretched the Larghetto to the edges of tasteful sentimentality. The issue was not so prominent in the outer movements of the Serenade, when lilting quality and faster tempos preclude such excessive romanticizing. However, the strings of the CSO, arranged in a smaller chamber configuration, did play with a warmth and tone quality often lost in the larger, full ensemble.

The highlight of the concert was the world premiere of Carter's orchestral song cycle Of Rewaking, dedicated to Barenboim, featuring mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung. It was the last of three world premieres that Barenboim and the CSO have given in the past month and the latest installment of premieres of Carter's works with the CSO.

The three songs are settings of poems by the great American poet William Carlos Williams. The poems-"The Rewaking," "Lear," and "Shadows"-deal with striving, surrender, and renewal and are among Williams's most visionary. Carter's setting is marked by those musical elements that have characterized his music for some time now: dancing rhythms, restless energy, splashes of color, and buoyancy of sound. Though it would be unfair to describe these songs as lyrical, there is a certain extended expressiveness to the long, syllabic vocal lines. Most importantly, though, Carter maintains an urgent, speech-like quality in his setting, allowing the texts to come through very clearly, sung with impeccable diction and delightfully rich tone by DeYoung. The orchestration, despite including a full orchestra and relatively large percussion battery, did not at all intrude on the singer's lines. Instead, the splashes of sound supported and complemented Williams' texts rather convincingly.

If Ein Heldenleben and Elgar's serenade symbolize the storied past of the CSO, Of Rewaking represents the present and future of the orchestra. And it is safe to say that it is still going strong.