S&H Concert review

PROM 63: Wagner, Carter, Mahler, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim, RAH, 7 September 2001 (MB)


The last Prom I reviewed (NHK Symphony Orchestra) showcased an orchestra that was somewhat anodyne in character. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra are anything but this: strings are rich and resonant (quite magnificent violas) and the brass are as fabulously trenchant in tone and delivery as we have long been led to believe. The sound in both the Wagner and the Mahler was as refined as you would expect and the virtuosity was often breathtaking (the closing bars of Mahler's First were delivered with the kind of panache and electricity only the greatest orchestras can summon up). There were minor fluffs in the Mahler but taken at Barenboim's breakneck pace it seemed inevitable.

Daniel Barenboim does not strike me as a natural Mahlerian. At times this performance seemed to be understated, the climaxes not always as shattering as they can be, even in the storm tossed despair of the finale. At times I yearned for a Bernstein or a Chailly conducting this work. Dynamically, however, it was a masterly performance. The first movement did have a pastoral simplicity to it - made all the more fascinating by how Barenboim wove the tapestry of colour which somewhat sets the entire mood for this work. Low clarinets were beautifully contrasted with a shrill high clarinet, distant trumpets were cavernous and there was a brightness to the phrasing of the strings, notably cellos and violas, which was haunting. The second movement had bucolic stolidity - the opening and closing dances framing a majestic and beautifully lurid performance of the Trio. The third movement lumbered like a giant - but with an almost inaudible double-bass solo you were easily reminded of how unforgiving, and cruel, the acoustics of the Albert Hall are. Yet it was evocative enough to meld the bleakness and dreamlike sonorities to create the impression of a huntsman almost unwillingly being sent towards the grave. Its effect was almost cathartic. The Finale was gripping - from the seismic opening cymbal clash and the spiralling string passages (violins here danced like devils on the huntsman's grave) to the density of the brass and percussion fugues which opened up with natural spaciousness. Climaxes collapsed and fractured like glass. There was a palpable intensity to much of the playing in this movement but how disappointing that horns (restating the triumphant trumpet chorale) failed to raise their flaring bells. The performance ended on a life-affirming peroration - taken as fast as I have ever heard it - which brought the house down.

The overture to Tannhäuser (receiving its 280th Prom performance, more than any other work) had also spellbound the audience. If the brass in the Mahler had at times seemed under some duress here they were magnificent - prolifically mellow in tone, in fact. If the performance overall lacked the electricity of a Furtwängler (sometimes Barenboim's inclination is to hold back too much) there were similarities, notably in the final brass and string passage which was exaggerated in to an untypically grandiose ritenuto.

The performance of Carter's Partita was exceptional. The opening movement of what has now become Carter's Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei, Partita is a multifarious work that recalls music from the Baroque through to Romanticism and modernism. It is in turns explosive and reflective, driven and restrained, loud and silent and received a performance of unusual empathy. It did indeed remind one of the airborne bubble which refracts life's changing variations.

Marc Bridle

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