at Orchestra Hall

February 26


at Orchestra Hall

March 2

Within a week of Daniel Barenboim’s first series of concerts as Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director designate last fall, he conducted two Brahms symphonies, the Brahms First Piano Concerto (with Radu Lupu), an orchestral arrangement of a Brahms clarinet sonata (with Larry Combs), and performed all three of the Brahms violin sonatas (with Itzhak Perlman). During the first week of this second series of concerts, Barenboim performed a single Bach work, the Goldberg Variations, on the piano–an instrument the composer never wrote for and which barely existed by the time of his death–and conducted the prelude and a single act of Wagner’s Parsifal. In terms of substance, there is nothing to compare with even smatterings of Bach and Wagner, but these manic extremes of overprogramming and underprogramming are a bit bewildering.

When it was announced last year that Barenboim would play the Goldberg Variations in a piano recital, I figured the work would be the centerpiece of some larger concert. The Goldbergs generally take a little less than an hour to perform in their entirety, a mere warm-up for a performaholic like Barenboim. And after all, Andras Schiff played all 48 preludes and fugues of Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier a couple of seasons ago, also on the piano, and that took three hours–though the way he played them, it seemed like three weeks. But the Goldbergs were to be the entire concert. (When I came across Barenboim’s new live, two-CD piano recording of the Goldbergs, I wondered if his recording company might have included as a generous appendix the variations that are almost never done and that are not part of the well-known 30. No, just the standard 30–about 80 minutes worth of music, which is way over the usual hour or so but which still could have easily been put on a single CD.)

The origin of the Goldbergs is almost as colorful as the variations themselves. It seems that Bach received a request from Count Keyserling, a Russian ambassador to Saxony, to compose a series of variations on an aria to be performed over and over again to help cure his insomnia. They were to be played by his harpsichordist, Johann Goldberg, a student of Bach’s. The variations are among the most virtuosic and complex clavier pieces ever written. Whatever effect they may have had on the poor count, they have kept audiences on the edges of their seats for centuries since.

But Bach on the piano? Glenn Gould did it of course, and quite effectively, though such a performance has about as much to do with Bach as a Liszt transcription of Tristan und Isolde has to do with Wagner. Apart from the large church organ, the harpsichord was the king of 18th-century instruments, and Bach intended his variations to be performed on it. Anything else is a transcription, pure and simple–however much Romantic interpreters, with their Darwinian attitude, claim the piano has succeeded the harpsichord.

Many compromises must be made when one decides to perform the Goldbergs on the piano. Some of the variations call for double manuals on the harpsichord, and can only be done on the piano with a perilous amount of cross-hand playing; even the most skilled virtuosi find collisions virtually unavoidable if they want to maintain brisk Baroque tempi. There is also the problem of registration. The harpsichord, like the organ, has a series of stops–which usually include couplers, dampers, and pedals–that can drastically alter the sound of the instrument. The use and mastery of such stops is a given for Bach’s harpsichord music. True, one can vary the sound of the piano through touch alone, which is not possible on a harpsichord, whose strings are plucked rather than hammered. But the piano still has a far more limited palette of colors. This is one of the reasons the most successful piano transcribers of Bach, such as Busoni, added octaves to what Bach wrote. The extra octaves add color and sparkle and compensate for the lack of couplers. That approach is not possible with the Goldbergs, since for much of the piece the pianist’s hands have all they can do just to play what is written.

Taking all of this into account, Barenboim’s performance was still special, if for no other reason than that he had such a strong point of view. There was little I could agree with in his interpretation–it was thoroughly Romantic in conception–but the array of colors that he was able to evoke on his Hamburg Steinway was far beyond what even Gould brought to the piece. Gould took quite brisk tempi and tended to play on the frantic side, but Barenboim was thoroughly in control the entire evening and offered as wide a variety of tempi as he did tone colors. In fact, Barenboim’s touch and control brought so much to the music that I seldom found myself thinking about harpsichord couplers. He made the piece his own.

Despite his Romantic interpretation of the piece, his sound was never weighed down. Unlike Schiff’s account of The Well-Tempered Clavier on piano, Barenboim never felt the need to hammer out fugue subjects so you wouldn’t miss them. His texture was incredibly transparent, with ferocity or a light bounce when appropriate, but never spilling over into excess. His technique and ability to transmit independence of lines was as good as any Bach interpreter’s you could name, despite too much pedal in some sections.

Most intriguing was Barenboim’s sense of the overall structure of the piece. Most harpsichordists and pianists play each variation and then pause, move on, pause, move on. But not Barenboim. He conceives the piece as a whole, an A-B-A arch–which is exactly what it is, though there are few performers who transmit this–with each piece heading into the next, in groups of threes. That he took virtually all repeats but did something different with them each time was quite refreshing–taking all the repeats would make no sense at all if they were all played exactly the same way.

Incidentally, his live recording, done last fall in a magnificent concert hall in Barenboim’s home city of Buenos Aires, captures much of the excitement and structure of his Orchestra Hall recital, though it is an entirely different performance, being less Romantic and not as overpedaled. A comparison of this performance to classic recordings such as Wanda Landowska’s on harpsichord, either of Gould’s piano recordings (1955 and 1982), or Gustav Leonhardt’s or Anthony Newman’s more modern harpsichord performances will give a pretty clear indication of the variety of approaches. Barenboim’s is certainly not my cup of tea, but the fact that it rates with these performances shows how creatively he envisions the Goldbergs and how effectively he is able to bring off his views. It’s wonderful to hear someone actually do something with an interpretation, even if you don’t agree with it. It sure beats not having any point of view at all, a disturbingly common approach at piano recitals.

Parsifal is Wagner’s last and arguably greatest work–it’s the culmination of a lifetime of imagination and experimentation. Wagner did not write mere opera–his genre, music drama, is unique. His works emphasize music and drama in equal measure; they are enormous dramatic tone poems for voices and orchestra rather than Italian opera’s sung plays of recitatives and arias with orchestral accompaniment, or French grand opera’s spectacle for its own sake. Wagner always wrote his own librettos and conceived every aspect of the music dramas’ production, right down to building a special theater for them. Because of its sacred themes and symbolism, Wagner dubbed Parsifal a “consecrated stage work,” and asked that it only be performed at Bayreuth without applause.

The music of Parsifal is among the most transcendent ever written. Like all of Wagner’s work, it is meant to suspend time and space, and Wagner takes us through the range of emotions as no composer before or since has. What Wagner did is in a class by itself, and it created a new paradigm for everything from painting to literature to theater to movies to war.

I was surprised how much of the overall unity of the three-act Parsifal was communicated through the performance of only the second act. To perform this act alone doesn’t make much sense, since most of the main characters are absent from it as are most of the sacred themes that bind the whole together and that figure so prominently in acts one and three. Perhaps that’s why the relatively last-minute decision was made to preface act two with the glorious prelude to the work, though I suspect it was more because act two clocks in at only about 65 minutes, a rather short evening at the symphony. Either way, putting an intermission between the two sections seemed unnecessarily intrusive.

It was obvious from the first measures of the prelude that the orchestra was basically sight-reading, since the strings were simply not together in their unison shifts. The brasses weren’t together when they came in with the Grail theme, and the trombones and horns, the middle voices, were very unbalanced and unsteady. Barenboim was able to evoke a relatively warm string sound, but nothing like what he achieved last fall with his magnificent Brahms cycle. Worst of all, the prelude, which even mediocre performances can’t stop from being spellbinding, fell completely flat. If Barenboim has any sense of the work’s inherent spirituality and mystical, shimmering qualities, he simply didn’t communicate it.

Those qualities are pretty much missing from act two, which concentrates on the more secular side of the work. In this act the wizard who was considered unworthy to join the brotherhood of the Grail and his double-agent seductress attempt to destroy Parsifal, who has set out to recover the sacred spear that wounded the high priest. This act calls for high tension and seductiveness, which Barenboim was able to muster up rather impressively. He kept the unity very tight and brought extraordinary playing from what is undoubtedly the world’s greatest Wagner orchestra. You would never have suspected that from the prelude performance, but act two was given extraordinary orchestral treatment, marred only by the painfully flat timpani that closed the act.

Much less satisfying than Barenboim’s conducting was the quality of the singing. Gunter von Kannen, who lists himself as a bass but is really a baritone, sang the role of Klingsor. This was his CSO debut, though he has worked with Barenboim in Europe a number of times and sang Alberich in his 1988 Bayreuth Ring cycle. He has an impressive dramatic presence that I’m sure would be more satisfying on the stage, but his sound is unfocused and forced–gruff and full of bizarre overtones. Waltraud Meier, who had also worked with Barenboim in Europe and was also making her CSO debut, lists herself as a mezzo-soprano, but her coloring and sound are more suited to the soprano repertoire. She was able to scale the entire range of Kundry, which Wagner marked for soprano, though it’s better suited to a mezzo, given its many low tones and the need for darker color, which Meier didn’t have. Her lower range was slender; she hit the lower notes, but barely. However, she was spectacular when she scaled and sustained the high Bs and Cs of the act. She was pretty wooden onstage, never bothering to laugh or become hysterical at the marked points, and projecting at more or less the same dynamic level most of the evening. She is the current idol of Bayreuth, but I suspect that is due more to her gorgeous looks and the lack of true Wagnerian singers today than to her singing, if this performance is typical. I would have much preferred to have heard Jessye Norman in the role. American George Gray as Parsifal had a pinched, slender tenor voice that was not at all suited to Wagner. His presence was as difficult to understand as his voice was difficult to hear; he strained in all the climactic fortes.

The seductive Flower Maidens were impressively, if not seductively, sung by locals Susan Foster, Elizabeth Futral, Marlene Meyer, Rosa Vento, Mary Jane Howe, and Phyllis Pancella. They had strong support from women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus.

This week Barenboim will play and conduct the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto and give the rescheduled world premiere of composer-in-residence John Corigliano’s First Symphony.