By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN — If Daniel Barenboim experienced a setback last month when the Iranian government blocked his visit with the Staatskapelle Berlin, he scored a coup on Sept. 3 at the Philharmonie with the opening concert of the Musikfest Berlin. The all-Schoenberg program proved a grand prelude to the festival’s emphasis on the father of 12-tone music, tracing his evolution from a brooding post-Romantic to an experimentalist in harmony and color to an assured master of a compositional technique that would sow the seeds of the European avant-garde.
The strings of the Staatskapelle are known for their rich, dark sound, a quality that was on display in Verklärte Nacht for String Orchestra, Op. 4. But just as striking were the sumptuous pianissimos, transparent and yet expressive, swelling with pathos while introducing the scene of a woman who tells her lover that she is bearing the child of another man as they wander through a moonlight grove.
The orchestra’s Wagnerian tradition with Barenboim at the Berlin State Opera, where he serves as general music director, emerged clearly in the long-winding, operatic phrases and shimmering textures. The tremolos that emerge mid-way through the piece took on an almost hysterical quality, only to subside into an exchange between violin and viola that seems to depict the couple’s resolution to their fate.
The work was followed by the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16, which Schoenberg described in a letter to Richard Strauss as “a checkered, unbroken alternation of colors, rhythms and moods.” The five miniatures unleash a dizzying concentration of ideas, from clashing dissonances to wild contrasts in instrumentation. The pounding percussion in the opening “Vorgefühle” sends the flutes fleeing in fright, only to end several pages later with a growling double bassoon. While it can be argued that Mahler had already liberated the orchestra years before, Schoenberg creates another level of what might even be called anarchic timbral innovation.
The following “Vergangenes” contains a mesmerizing passage in which a bassoon percolates beneath an eerie celesta and veiled, atmospheric flutes. A chromatic, upward harp glissando then yields to a violin solo until the full wind ensemble joins, underpinned by staccato major thirds in the xylophone. Barenboim, as can be heard on his 1995 recording of the same work with the Chicago Symphony, has a way of shaping each line, even as they overlap and bleed into each other, while maintaining the music’s sardonically playful side.
The inner movement, “Farben, is almost pre-spectral in its washes of color that fade in and out like waves on the water (Schoenberg indicated a “summer morning on the lake” in addition to the title “Colors”). A trombone soon disrupts the peace, however, and the image drifts apart into shards. Barenboim’s expansive pacing, which can turn a Wagner opera into a veritable marathon, was here a boon to the music’s clarity and expression.
The following “Peripetie,” marked “sehr rasch” (very quick), rushed by with chaotic energy, small explosions of sound ricocheting throughout the orchestra while also weaving in well-shaped fragments of cantilenas. In the final “Das obligate Recitativ,” bits of material circled around each other but, again, were given enough space so that it was possible to perceive the orchestra’s morphing into a final, screaming dissonance.
Despite the work’s moments of genius, the techniques Schoenberg probes in the Five Orchestral Pieces would first come to fruition with later works. It was nothing less than a revelation to hear the work followed by his Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, particularly in this focused but fierce performance. Rather than pack in slivers of at times violent contrast, the composer gives his ideas time to expand and germinate, textures such as an undulating clarinet continuing under a hint of the theme in the double basses during the opening bars of the introduction in nearly post-Romantic fashion. The spacious musical development brings into relief the melodic variations, now tossed in the woodwinds in the third variation while driven by percussive strings, flexaton, and xylophone, then cast as a distorted waltz in the fourth.
The orchestra’s attention to detail was all the more impressive given the fact that they had just played another equally dense work. The seventh variation emerged with finely balanced ethereal textures, the eighth with percussive bite. The finale unfolds as a series of fleeting vignettes, culminating in a sudden quote of B-A-C-H before regaining its stride and rushing toward a final chord of all twelve tones.
Barenboim allowed the momentum to unfold naturally while maintaining a characteristic dose of uncompromising authority, digging his baton upward with old-world flair on the final fortissimo attack. Showers of bravos from the audience affirmed that even if the maestro can’t work his magic in Iran, he remains a hero in Germany.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.