at Orchestra Hall

September 27, 28, October 3, 5


at Orchestra Hall

October 4

It is not so terribly bizarre that a year’s time would see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra sink to its lowest level and then rise to its highest; I have seen this happen literally within the same day. Of course, the change was always due to a change of conductor. But it is bizarre when such highs and lows occur under the same conductor.

There are those who don’t understand the feeding frenzy that arose last winter when Daniel Barenboim was announced as the CSO’s music director designate. They may not be aware that his concerts here last fall featured some of the scrappiest playing ever heard at Orchestra Hall. The thought of the potentially glorious CSO sounding like that on a regular basis was the stuff of music lovers’ worst nightmares.

The Barenboim who began the CSO’s 99th season last month was a totally transformed Barenboim, not only the opposite of the careless conductor we heard here last fall, but totally different from any Barenboim we have heard here before. No less remarkable, the CSO was a changed orchestra, not just different from the orchestra that Barenboim had conducted before, but different from what anyone has conducted here before, at least as far as the music of Brahms is concerned.

Barenboim wanted to make a statement with his opening concerts as music director designate, and he chose the music of Brahms to do so. This was music he had never conducted here before, although as a pianist he had played both of Brahms’s piano concertos back-to-back as recently as two seasons ago. (There were also preconcert Brahms lectures and recitals and a specially prepared book of essays and snippets about Brahms.) Over two weeks of concerts, Barenboim conducted all four Brahms symphonies, the Violin Concerto (with Itzhak Perlman), the First Piano Concerto, and the Berio arrangement of the Clarinet Sonata, op. 120, no. 1. He also accompanied Perlman on the piano in a separate recital of all three Brahms violin sonatas.

The season began inauspiciously enough with a frisky Star-Spangled Banner, followed by a reading of the Brahms Piano Concerto no. 1 with Radu Lupu as soloist. My heart nearly skipped a beat as the opening orchestral phrase found the strings slightly out of phase. Oh no, deja vu. Is there a fire escape close by?

Then something interesting began to happen. Although I found Lupu’s interpretation extremely dull–certainly the slowest Brahms First Piano Concerto I’ve heard, one that brought out the most repetitious and unadventurous aspects of the music–the orchestra was right there with him every step of the way. This is extraordinary when you consider that Barenboim’s conception of the piece, as a pianist, couldn’t be more different from Lupu’s. I would have expected either a soloist who shared Barenboim’s ideas on the music, or a fight between pianist and conductor. But Barenboim deferred completely to Lupu’s interpretation, which is what a responsible conductor will always do. One could argue the wisdom of Lupu being there in the first place (I certainly would), but as long as he was, Barenboim did that which best served the music. (Lupu’s performance was further hindered by the unpredictability of Orchestra Hall’s Hamburg Steinway, an instrument long overdue to be honorably retired.)

Brahms was 43 years old when he completed his First Symphony. He had worked on it on and off for almost 20 years, although his original ideas for it ended up as the First Piano Concerto. Much of Brahms’s hesitation was due to the enormous shadow cast by Beethoven, whose nine symphonies had expressed every conceivable emotion and mood. When it seemed that Beethoven had exhausted all instrumental possibilities, the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony burst out in a setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” for chorus and vocal soloists, indicating an entirely new symphonic direction. Brahms, who had taken this direction in his German Requiem, wanted to continue in an instrumental direction in his symphonies.

The stormy Symphony no. 1 is in many ways Brahms’s largest symphonic conception and form. In a cliche as unlikely but inevitable as the one used of the opening of the Beethoven Fifth–“fate’s knocking at the door”–its plodding, metrical introduction is often said to be Brahms following in Beethoven’s footsteps.

Barenboim had changed the CSO layout to a more European style: the violas had been moved to the center of the orchestra, making for a more uniform string balance. It was obvious from the first measure that he had left nothing to chance: everything had been so well rehearsed that not a single phrase was out of place. This was Brahms playing of the very highest order, with exquisite phrasing and perfect ensembling and performed with great subtlety and poetry. Although Barenboim’s approach to Romantic music has often been overblown, this performance was remarkably conservative and careful. Even the brasses, which are often harsh and overbearing, played as if Claudio Abbado were leading. And just when I thought it was all going to spill into excess in the climax of the finale, caution and restraint won out.

The second program began with a tasteless orchestral arrangement of the Brahms Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, op. 120, no. 1, made by Italian composer Luciano Berio. The justification for this vulgarity is that solo clarinet/orchestral repertoire is minimal, and that such an arrangement makes for a welcome addition. Great for clarinetists looking for more to play. Horrid for Brahms, and for audience members who have to endure it.

Late in his life Brahms had given up composing, but he was so moved by the playing of clarinetist Richard Muhlfeld that he produced a clarinet trio, a quintet, and two clarinet sonatas. They are powerful pieces, reflecting the essence of the mature Brahms on an intimate level. To take such an intimate work and reshape it on a larger scale not only misses the point of the music, it castrates the pianistic features of the accompaniment, which are as vital to the overall texture as the clarinet itself. Beyond that, Larry Combs as soloist gave the most lifeless and colorless reading imaginable. As for Barenboim and the orchestra, well, they followed Combs’s lead. How they stayed awake, I cannot imagine.

Whereas Brahms’s First Symphony had taken almost 20 years from initial conception to completion, the time between the First and Second symphonies was only a few months. Unlike the dark First Symphony, Symphony no. 2 has often been described as Brahms’s “pastoral” symphony (again Brahms falls to escape the inevitable comparison with Beethoven). Much of its pastoral quality is due to the fact that Brahms’ had little to prove after his tumultuous First, and to the fact that the work was written on a summer holiday at Portschach; it is a smaller, lighter work.

At the beginning, Barenboim’s reading was a bit dull, although ensembling and balances were excellent; but things quickly picked up. He was able to evoke a very placid, peaceful, and soothing sonority, and the strings not only were playing more as a section than they have in years, but achieved an extraordinarily warm, mellow sound. His control was steady and firm, and although there were some erratic licenses taken with tempi, particularly in the finale, they were made to sound convincing. This was a far more lush and lyrical account than the harsher reading by Solti three seasons ago.

All of the second week’s concerts began with the Brahms Violin Concerto, performed by Itzhak Perlman. Perlman, Barenboim’s good friend, was obviously lending his superstar status to these crucial Barenboim concerts. Indeed, the lift he added was so great that Perlman and Barenboim ended up taking the audience right into the stratosphere.

The Brahms Violin Concerto is one of the most overplayed works in the entire repertoire (the CSO had played the work a mere two months before at Ravinia). It is so familiar, and has been done over in so many ways, that you feel sure no performance could offer anything new. Wrong. This was a collaboration so magical and revelatory that you seemed to hear the music for the first time. The introduction was slow, but Perlman played the violin entrance gorgeously. Perlman is the perfect Brahms violinist: he achieves a sweet, lyrical tone that is never syrupy, and a full, rich, beautiful sound–never thin, but it doesn’t spill over into too much vibrato. His palette of colors and moods was nothing short of miraculous, and his virtuosity was above reproach. Particularly amazing–in a performance full of amazements–was the way Perlman walked a fine line between devilishness and lyricism in the work’s finale, which resembles a gypsy dance. Barenboim was with his friend at every step, giving him impeccable accompaniment. Both Perlman and Barenboim pulled out all the stops; I doubt we will hear its equal anytime soon, if ever.

After such an extraordinary performance, I really wasn’t expecting much from the Brahms Fourth Symphony–I thought the evening’s summit had been reached. Wrong again. Here at last, after a week of working with the orchestra to form a common musical language for Brahms’s music, Barenboim had reached perfection. That is not a word I use lightly, but here it applied. I have never heard Brahms played as beautifully as it was in the opening movement, with its gorgeous, warm string tone, lush layering, and almost orgasmic tensions and releases. Even Herbert von Karajan’s extraordinary Brahms cycle here with the Berlin Philharmonic 13 Years ago did not match the heights reached by Barenboim and the CSO. His eye, on both the larger and the more detailed structures of the work, was second to none.

On the following night, Perlman and Barenboim were back for a recital of the three Brahms violin sonatas. I was expecting more Brahmsian rapture, but alas it was not to be. Both Perlman and Barenboim played as if thoroughly exhausted (they probably were, and understandably so), and their playing was pretty cold. Barenboim on piano was a shadow of his former self, content to let Perlman lead the way in pieces that call for a full collaboration between piano and violin. Only in the third sonata did sparks fly–but they were only sparks, not the magical fire of the night before. One sensed that the distractions of a five-man television crew onstage and a battery of bright lights didn’t help (the recital was being recorded for home video, and that ruined any potential intimacy).

By the next evening the magic had returned. Perlman and Barenboim again presented the Brahms Violin Concerto as the first work on the program, and concluded with the Brahms Symphony no. 3. The Third was also given extraordinary treatment from Barenboim, who melded the gorgeous wind sonority with a beautiful tone from the strings. The brass was almost but not quite over the edge; in fact, at the end of the first movement they became quite subtle. The third movement had a lovely sweeping quality (but I would have preferred the darker, mellower sound that Barenboim had achieved in the first movement of the Fourth). The solos, particularly Ray Still’s oboe and Dale Clevenger’s horn, were very well played. The fourth movement rode just over the edge, something Barenboim had successfully avoided in the earlier three symphony performances. The climax was a bit harsh; the ending, usually gentle and quiet, was being pushed a bit, and Barenboim slightly overshot the mark.

What is particularly gratifying is that even when things didn’t quite work as well as they might have, the issue was not Barenboim’s technique or competence but the quality and effectiveness of his interpretation. That is an enormous victory for Barenboim, and much more important, an enormous victory for Brahms and for Chicago.

Of course Brahms is just one part of the symphonic repertoire, albeit an important part. But Barenboim has demonstrated supreme mastery of it with an orchestra not exactly well-known for its Brahms playing. Brahms favors a mellow sonority above all, something the more harsh and driven Solti, for instance, has been simply unable to achieve with this music. If Barenboim can turn his attention as carefully and artistically to other repertoire as he has to Brahms, not only will the controversy about his right to be here all but vanish, but we will be in for some very exciting years. Let’s hope that this victory won’t allow a return of the old, less careful Barenboim.