February 24, 2004

Barenboim and Serkin collaborate on classics with mixed results

The concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—Daniel Barenboim conducting, Peter Serkin as piano soloist—on the February 17 included Bach's Concerto for Two Harpsichords, BWV 1061; Schoenberg's Piano Concerto Op. 42; and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Structurally and aesthetically, the Bach concerto seemed discongruous. One could perceive that it had been placed there to illustrate a historical progression, but the concerto as it was performed did not provide that sense of continuity. It did not explain or predict the Beethoven and Schoenberg. It fell into the category of "core repertoire padding." That is, it was meant to ensure that the audience starting off listening to something they could identify with before being hit by the Schoenberg.

The concerto is scored for two harpsichords (played by two pianos, with Barenboim and Serkin featured as soloists) and string orchestra. The first movement began listlessly. The orchestra provided some good accompaniment, but there was really nothing to support. Barenboim played very meticulously but his performance was devoid of any charm. Peter Serkin played more imaginatively, which led to at least a partial expression of the Bach piece's wry wit and buoyant spirits. The performance got better towards the end of the movement, with the rhetorical flourishes passably done. The second movement—an intimate dialogue between the pianos involving motivic exploration, beautiful sequences, and filigree passagework—was executed. Upon the guillotine of boredom. Fortunately, Serkin and Barenboim gained some fire and dash in the last movement and managed to rouse the orchestra and the audience into something resembling excitement. The overall effect was that of an old man trying very hard to be lively and charismatic.

The second piece, the Schoenberg piano concerto, was much more interesting. First, some background and context: Schoenberg initiated—some would say instigated—the so-called Second Viennese School of Composition. He made an entire break from tonal structures, creating a technique of composition and serialism, which approached harmony from a radical perspective. Serialism revolves around the dodecaphonic tone row, comprising the 12 chromatic notes, which functions as the main expressive unit. The work has no tonal center and is not based around traditional harmonic tension and resolution. The directional thrust and narrative ebb and flow are achieved through fundamentally different means, drawing upon aspects of rhythm, meter, expression, textures, range, and tonal combinatorics in order to achieve artistic expression.

Historically speaking, it was a logical progression. The late 19th century had seen conventional tonality, chromatics, and harmonic structures pushed to the breaking point and beyond. After Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, something was bound to give way. But for Schoenberg, it was much more a case of idiom being dictated by the material with which he had to deal. Some of the concepts he sought to explore could not possibly be delivered in anything other than serialism. Atonal music is eldritch, subtly nuanced, and ever-changing—disorienting to those primarily accustomed to clear (or at least existent) harmonic structures. It is definitely not instantly gratifying or appealing in the way Mozart or even Mahler might be. It is liable to be discounted as mere noise, random notes, or "cerebral" music. However, it can be infinitely beautiful and emotionally expressive, as the piano concerto by Schoenberg eloquently demonstrates. It can mold itself in ways impossible for tonal music—laughing mockingly one instant and becoming hysterical in the next, changing moods and emotional coloring in a scintillating second, capturing the quintessence of a moment in a single note, exploring the true logic of chaos.

Schoenberg's piano concerto was composed in 1942 and is a freely atonal work, meaning that its idiom includes both tonal and atonal elements. One gets strange, mesmerizing hints at traditional harmony interspersed with the tone row structure. The work is usually performed as one long essay without breaks for movements, but differences in key, meter, and general atmosphere—as well as Schoenberg's own inscriptions—point to four movements. The first, "Life was so easy," is structured as a taut, witty, and graceful waltz. The second, "Suddenly hatred broke out," is true to its name with an abrupt change of tempo, rhythm, and an eruption of darkness. The third, "A grave situation was created," carries the bulk of the emotional impact—a haunting, angular yet lyrical melody line, pungent rhythms and orchestration, and extended piano solos. Movement IV, "But life goes on," is an ironic, poignant rondo and finale, an attempt to reconcile and recapture the original atmosphere, never quite succeeding after being shattered by the adagio. It finally abandons itself and achieves new synthesis.

The first movement began with mediocrity. But about two-thirds of the way through, Serkin gained in power, intellectual, and emotional impact. The playing became more compact, with the nervousness and instability was portrayed very well. The music ceased to be a smooth coagulation of notes and gained character. The orchestra went from meek commentary to a semblance of dramatic action.

Every piece of music tends towards a few moments, the make-or-break points. All the preceding music flows towards these points, and everything afterwards follows from the implications they present. If the performer is able to attain expressive intensity at such junctures, he validates the entire work. If he fails, it sounds incoherent and unfulfilling no matter how well he plays everything else. For instance, about two-and-a-half minutes into the piece, the graceful irony suddenly degenerates into panic. The musical motif, a mocking quasi-trill originally used as a sarcastic interjection, metamorphoses into a sinister, dark, and frenzied cry. This is a passage of intense turmoil, an elegant conversation that has suddenly descended into primal fear. It is one of the crucial points in the movement, with the chaotic spiral anticipating the rest of the piece. This point introduces instability and uncertainty, and expounds on the thesis of the first movement. Everything may seem calm and civilized, but horror lurks just beneath the surface. As a matter of fact, this was one of the moments Serkin and Barenboim missed. The trend continued throughout the second movement and part of the third. The conductor and pianist created gorgeous buildups and then backed down at the last minute. They broke the enchantment at these crucial instances, leaving the audience with a sense of musical default.

Towards the end of the third movement, however, there was a sudden, inexplicable (but highly welcome) mood shift. The soloist and the orchestra seemed to abandon themselves and fearlessly strode into the heart of the music. They were utterly ensorcelling. Fire and brimstone were abruptly juxtaposed with ravishing sweetness. Dragons flew over skyscrapers, followed by a single ripple on a crystalline lake. These few moments were the highlight of the evening, something that was worth everything that came before it—and everything that was to come.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was the last piece on the program. This piece has become a veritable concert warhorse and is probably one of the most famous pieces of music ever written. With such fame comes an enormous interpretive burden, as our ears are filled with Furtwangler, Toscanini, Walter, Solti, Klemperer, Weingartner

But even after taking into account the loss of subjectivity that comes from long experience, the first movement of the symphony was execrable. The tempo was funereal; the opening motif sounded more like the dull, fatalistic knocks of an undertaker than the fury of destiny. As an abrupt contrast, the second movement was extremely good. Barenboim created some very mellifluous passages and gorgeously expressive cantabile with an elegant tempo. The third movement was a dreadful disappointment. The "goblin" trio was not at all agile and eerie and did not flicker like hellfire. The violins were obviously and cloyingly saccharin. Towards the last movement, Barenboim seemed to rouse himself and created some impassioned passages before the end. But the elemental frenzy and the unleashing of almost uncontrollable force were utterly absent.

The concert was good, but certainly not brilliant. There were too many missed opportunities. A program of this nature could have been used to express historical progression, philosophical journeys, the establishment and the dissolution of tradition—the list goes on. Instead, it was largely unremarkable, with a few brilliant passages bursting forth irregularly. This served more to highlight what was possible than to redeem the concert from overall mediocrity.