January 11, 2008

Franz Did All the Work

Haitink & the Berlin Philharmonics perform Bach, Berg and Schubert


Johann Sebastian Bach
Ricercare a sei from The Musical Offering BWV 1079 (Orchestral arrangement by Anton Webern)

Alban Berg
Violin Concerto "Dem Andenken eines Engels"

Franz Schubert
Symphony Nr. 9 in C Major D 944 "The Great"


Berliner Philharmoniker
Bernard Haitink - Conductor
Frank Peter Zimmermann - Violin

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Franz Did All the Work

Haitink & the Berlin Philharmonics perform Bach, Berg and Schubert

by Anicia Timberlake / Photo: Franz Hamm

The piece known in English as The Musical Offering bears the German title Das musikalische Opfer, which, to this reviewer's non-German ears, creates an unfortunate pun: Opfer has several meanings, "offering," as in the English title, but also "sacrifice" or "victim." Bernard Haitink's rendition of the Ricercare a sei with the Berlin Philharmonic bore more resemblance to a victim or sacrifice than to an offering. The piece, arranged by Webern, resembles the Bach we're familiar with only in the pitches it uses. The opening fugue subject is split among three muted brass instruments, which each play several notes before passing it off; other voices in the fugue are similarly split between instruments, sometimes between whole sections. The overall effect of familiar notes paired with Webernian effects, such as glissandi in the solo string parts, is doubtless intended to be a little alienating. The performance certainly achieved aural alienation, but maybe not the sort Webern would have wanted. What began in the brass as a beautifully distanced and abstract sound became an obvious and heavy-handed gesture in the first violins. The concertmaster's solos, in particular, were disappointing, sloppy and artless. Mr. Haitink's large, emphatic beats only served to underline the impression that the piece was under-rehearsed and suffered from disunity. Alienation is surely not meant to refer to alienation between the players themselves, yet that is how the piece came across.

Frank Peter Zimmermann

If the first piece marked a sacrifice to the gods of Playing Together, then the next two pieces were proof that those gods were listening. The Berg Violin Concerto, with soloist Frank Peter Zimmermann, was an example of the magic created when soloist and orchestra work well together. A teacher once described Berg's music to me as "a barren mountain landscape, where shafts of light beam down to illuminate strange and beautiful details"; good orchestral playing and excellent orchestral solos painted a vivid scene. The clarinets and the lower strings deserve an especial mention for their extremely quiet and luminous performance of the Bach chorale Es ist genug near the end of the second movement. Zimmermann plays a 1711 Stradivarius, and nowhere were both the instrument's quality and his skill more apparent than in his stunning pianissimos. He conveyed a feeling of intimacy in his solos that was beautifully offset by the lumbering and inorganic symphonic sections. Those may be notably negative words, yet it was exactly that intentional bizarreness which made the performance compelling. Zimmermann's sound was sometimes lost, as the strings, especially, had a hard time reaching piano, but since the piece is as much a work for orchestra as it is for solo violin, the effect was not entirely negative. Zimmermann played the Sarabande from Bach's Partita in d minor for solo violin as an encore.

The Schubert was clearly what everyone had come for, and their expectations were well met: listeners around me were swaying in their seats and conducting along. Haitink's Schubert was a masterpiece of restraint. I am sometimes apprehensive about hearing this symphony in concert. It is so long that any exaggerated attempt at "interpretation" can make it seem eternal and sappy. However, Haitink delivered a pure rendition that was focused entirely on the music, not on the act of performing or the conductor's ego. It was one of those rare moments—or whole hours, in this case—where everyone can lose themselves in the simple pleasure of well-played, well-composed music. The tempi were neither too fast nor too slow, the dramatic moments were just dramatic enough, the sound was transparent, the violins' every note could be distinctly heard, and the accents were as crisp and surprising as accents should be. The long, slow crescendos, which can make or break the performance, were executed with patience and some really excellent mezzo-pianos. The overall effect was one of wonderful liveliness and optimism contrasted with moments of delicate nostalgia. Haitink was called onto stage for a special ovation after the orchestra had left. He waved, and shrugged, as if to say "Well, Franz did all the work." Which is not a bad way to think of conducting.