February 28, 2006

Brendel, Takács, and the concept of narratives

“Forcing a comparison” is usually the phrase that comes to mind when a reviewer attempts to critique two concerts in one article. However, occasions exist when distinct performances work together to illustrate a critical point so perfectly that one is inclined to agree with Shakespeare: Chance fashions events much better than one could lay down in likelihood.

And such was the case with both the Takács quartet concert last Friday at Mandel Hall and the Alfred Brendel/Daniel Barenboim performance Saturday evening with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The programs both spanned roughly the same time period—from the old to the new Viennese schools of composition—but their accent was very different. The Takács began with lush Romanticism in the form of Schubert’s Rosamunde quartet, went on to neoclassicism with Bartók’s second quartet, and ended with late Mozart in one of his more introspective moods (the string quintet in C major). The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s approach was to begin with the beginning, go on until the end, and then stop; they presented Mozart’s 25th concerto followed by Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande.

Each of the concerts was technically impeccable—their aesthetics were equally brilliant, albeit in very different ways. They were an eloquent testament to the evolving philosophical base of artistic interpretation from a sweeping, universal, theory-of-everything narrative to a more discrete, microcosmic sequence of perfect moments. In other words, if Brendel and Barenboim are natural philosophers, the players of the Takács quartet are game theorists.

The concept of a central, unifying narrative in composition and interpretation is arguably a very old one—advice on its dynamics and importance can be found in theoretical works since the Renaissance. It can be functionally defined as an idea that permeates and unifies a composition, making a section logically follow from its predecessor, telling a story and welding together the musical motifs that make up a work. Structurally, it is a fairly loose concept—in the Baroque and Classical periods, it was closely correlated with specific musical themes that would be worked out in the formalism of a fugue or a sonata. Later, it came to represent and be represented by increasingly general constructs such as Schumann’s character chords, Wagner’s leitmotifs, Debussy’s numerically derived harmonies, and Stravinsky’s rhythmic inventions.

Although it was always present, the concept of narratives was made theoretically self-conscious by Heinrich Schenker’s musicological work in the early 1900s. He formalized the concept of narratives, deconstructing works into more and more basic structural components, uncovering the harmonic and melodic arches that underpin tonal music. His was a comprehensive philosophical stance that propounded the presence of a central narrative as a fundamental aspect of musical composition, even musical conception.

Although this seems an entirely abstruse academic issue, it had powerful implications for performance. Schenkerian musicology gave musicians a comprehensive road map, if you will. It suggested that the goal of an illuminating performance was to tap into the central narrative of the piece, expressing its underlying structures in the best and most continuous possible light. In other words—individual moments were to be subsumed into the grander arch of the performance, and this philosophy was perhaps perfected in practice by virtuosi of the Furtwüngler/Toscanini period.

And last Saturday, Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim presented one of the more compelling manifestations of this aesthetic. The concerto Brendel chose to perform was hardly one of Mozart’s more profound works. At best, it is a charming little vignette. However, Brendel was able to tap into the hidden lines of subtlety and thematic motifs that ran through the piece, picking out the underlying poetry and fierce passion in the midst of the tinkling Wildean table talk.

His technique was unassuming, his music shattering. He would mimic the timbres of the orchestral instruments, draw them into his introspections, and emphasize certain passages (while changing the tenor of others) in order to tell a coherent story. On occasion, he sacrificed virtuosity in order to create a unified whole. The cadenzas he chose to play were hardly the most flamboyant in the repertoire, but they were the more consummately suited. I believe I had once remarked in these very pages that Brendel played as if within a snow globe. I retain that analytical image, but will add to it the observation that he creates a complete, self-contained universe within that snow globe. Once in his world, we are assured of narrative self-consistency and completion. And that infuses every performance with a poignant beauty that is uniquely Alfred Brendel.

The Mozart was followed by Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, a piece that showcases the composer’s matchless skill at tone painting. The orchestral color and imagery was magnificently depicted. One could see Golaud’s overpowering passion contrasting Melisande’s acquiescent frivolity—her shining ring depicted by the flutes and percussion that slips down the well, her cascading hair shaped by harps in which Pelleas loses himself, the nightmarish end in which Golaud’s anguished questioning fades away into the sound of her last heartbeats. It was performed with an aesthetic that mirrored Brendel’s; Barenboim shaped every phrase with an eye to the narrative, superbly unifying the entirety. The meaning, the leitmotifs, and the underlying themes were ever visible. The piece had and could define its purpose unerringly.

This was precisely the aesthetic that the Takács quartet rejected in its performance last week. They embodied the theoretical shift that gained momentum in the last three decades—the tide that had turned in the affairs of men, especially philosophical men, against such a comprehensive, sweeping world-view. No longer was it thought wise, or even possible, to posit and defend a theory of everything. One specialized in the microcosmic, turning inwards into explaining the world dewdrop by dewdrop.

This is mirrored in the scientific community by the exponential rise of specialization (natural philosophers gave way to particle physicists, for example). Schenkerianism became vaguely superannuated, and this correlated to a declining importance given to the narrative in performance. The creation of a perfect moment takes precedence over the postulation of an entirety. Dazzling virtuosity had the opportunity to cost the tale’s cohesion.

The works of the 1960s encapsulated this ideal, with composers like George Crumb, Luciano Berio and György Ligeti enshrining the concept of fragmentation. While performing such works, one is forced to consciously abandon conceptions of narrative, turning one’s focus to creating perfect, polished shards of expression. And what began as an acknowledged novelty eventually became mainstream artistry and finally, a matter of expectation.

When the Takács quartet played Schubert, Bartók, and Mozart, they focused on minute musical motifs; the glistening passage in the Adagio of the Mozart; the aching, lingering sense of loss at the beginning of the Schubert; and the Mercutio-Tybalt-esque flashing swords in the Bartók quartet’s last movement, instead of the grander narrative arches. The effect was scintillating–and yet, at some level, artistically particulate. We have greater virtuosity, brilliant polish, and a glowing sequence of moments at the price of a tautly woven epic grandeur. The Mozart of Takács was, in a sense, a Mozart of the extant aesthetics—exquisitely shaped but contextually displaced. In cases such as these, judgment bows out to analysis. One is inclined to take refuge in the economist’s world, in which cardinality is purely a matter of preference.