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12.5.05

Barenboim's Mahler Mosaic; Mozart Magic

On his farewell tour with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim stopped by Washington this Tuesday to give the audience a taste of both his skills as a soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 and as a conductor in Mahler's 9th symphony. The beauty of the concerto, K. 488 in A major, is such that it is virtually impossible for the work to sound anything less than delightful, regardless of what performance practices one prefers.

With the CSO, it wasn't going to be Mozart-light, but a concerto with meat on its bones. That it had an airy touch and spring in its step goes to the credit of Barenboim and this splendid band, as Mozart is far more difficult to do really well, especially with bigger orchestral bodies whose bread and butter is Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner, et al.

There were a few oddly pulled phrases and uniquely accented notes that neither added nor detracted and between them, Maestro Barenboim piloted this jewel most enjoyably. In keeping with the orchestra's approach, it was muscular playing, not afraid of digging into the Steinway, though never plodding and mercifully far from the "Dresden china" custom of playing that Mozart's works suffer through all too often. Some may have liked to hear more colors and fleeter notes in the Adagio, but to these ears the occasional lush delving of Barenboim and Co. was most welcome.

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W. A. Mozart, Piano Concerti Nos. 13, 20, 23, 24, 27, Clara Haskil / Paul Sacher / VPO
Barenboim has made it quite clear why he is leaving his post in Chicago (too many extramusical activities required of a conductor in cultural institutions in this country), but in case anyone thought it may be lack of energy on the part of the 63-year-old, watching Barenboim's putting everything into his conducting and playing of the Allegro assai should have proven such ideas nonsense.

Mahler's 9th, one of the greatest symphonic statements of the 20th century, had just been played by Leonard Slatkin and the NSO, but it's a work I don't tire of. (Read the Ionarts review of MTT's recent recording here.) Thinking Barenboim to be just about the best Wagner conductor alive, but rather disliking his Bruckner, I was excited to hear how he handled Mahler. Alas, that excitement waned almost immediately and gave way to distinct disappointment.

The first movement, roughly 25 minutes long, though it seemed even quicker, featured mechanical brass and bass notes, and the rhythm of the opening felt like "left-right, left-right" rather than forward dancing steps. It had majestic and robust touches in the D major theme of the Andante comodo, but shrill clarinets and a few other sections were off in this movement and never really sounded sure-footed. It took until the first climax some four minutes into the symphony that the performance became more than just note playing, and that was achieved by pure force and speed in what was a very fast D minor theme of the same movement.

Other Articles:

Daniel Ginsberg, Daniel Barenboim, Going Out in Style (Washington Post, May 8)

Tim Smith, 3-M night: Mozart, Mahler, masterful (Baltimore Sun, May 12)

Tim Page, Chicago Symphony's Rainbow At End of a Stormy Reign (Washington Post, May 12)
The slow parts especially ran parallel to this listener, neither pulling me along nor exuding the feeling of propulsion that I have heard in this symphony, even at slower tempi. Gear changes were not particularly smooth, at least not considering the orchestral excellence of the Chicago SO and the consequent high expectations. Many musical moments were clipped, lacked continuity, and rather offered only snippets. Individual bits were expertly and excitingly done, especially the loud and fast parts involving the thundering brass (no surprise there...), but then there was a fair share of washy sounds, too. Horn calls were pasted on top of the symphony, rather than emerging organically from the belly of the beast. The lilting of the end of the first movement became a hobble, one leg shorter than the other.

In the first movement already, I started wondering whether gradients in music are grossly exaggerated by critics so as to distinguish one performance from another, or whether they are actually that important; the answer being "probably yes" to both questions. Can a performance of Mahler's 9th by a great conductor with a great orchestra really be that much worse than other accounts by great conductors with great or lesser orchestras? Would not a Daniel Barenboim, with more musical understanding in his pinky than I shall ever hope to acquire, know better or be aware of what he is doing? What if other, more experienced critics disagree?

Valid enough questions, especially since the focus on small differences from performance to performance makes it all the more important that one be right in identifying them. These are not so much questions to find definite answers for, but to be asked continuously to keep critics on their toes.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 9, HvK
Meanwhile, the hard-driven second movement (Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers) wore heavy boots and had a determined, forced quality to it. There was nothing gemächlich about it, even at almost 17 minutes, and nothing surprising or jolting, either.

The third movement, Rondo-Burleske - Allegro Assai - Sehr trotzig, started with the booming brass lunging itself up the stairs, but generally its 12'30" made for the most successful (because it was the loudest, fastest, and most boisterous) of the movements. Still, I found it rough-hewn, lacking in nuance, plowing right through the music without a natural flow.

The fourth movement starts with an exhaling sound and offers the only inner piece found in Mahler. The main theme was rich and creamy, finally flowed, was well shaped and very pleasingly luscious. The sections after that were not welded together at all. Intonation problems remained, and the slower second theme was back to the routine, the bits and pieces. Only isolated moments had true greatness in them, but in Mahler, especially in the 9th, moments don't count, only the whole. It can't afford to be breathless, and taken as a whole, the performance was far, far less than the sum of its parts. Slatkin and the NSO gave, surprisingly, a far more lucid and more pleasing performance.

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