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New York
Carnegie Hall
01/21/2004 -  
Robert Schumann:
Piano Concerto; Symphony # 2

Radu Lupu (piano)
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

I have always been a huge fan of Claudio Arrau and so, in his centenary year of 2003, I brought down from its place of honor the massive box containing the LP recordings of all of the Beethoven sonatas and variations. Arrau was, for me, the consummate Beethovenian, authoritative and majestic, dignified and discursive, elegant and balanced, expressive and studious. I do, however, remember another set of the 32 from the vinyl era of which I was particularly fond: the energetic traversal in two volumes by the young Daniel Barenboim. It is probably hard luck for the now matured Barenboim that I studied the grandiloquent Arrau, but it is always best to maintain the highest possible standards.

Mr. Barenboim thinks encyclopedically, bringing his Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra to Carnegie a few years ago for the nine symphonies and five concerti all in one week, and now planning to husband these same forces again for the four Schumann symphonies and corresponding concerti in the span of just a few days. The problem has been that he is notoriously inconsistent and possesses the attention span of a flea (like Valery Gergiev, he constantly has too many fats in the fire). Certainly there are great moments of revelatory and thought-provoking phrasing in his conducting, but there are at least an equal number of prosaic or sloppy sections of passagework. Even as a pianist in the five concerti, it was a crapshoot as to which Daniel would show up: the eloquent poet, the boorish pounder, or just the plain dullard.

For Schumann we received instead Radu Lupu. Unconventional to say the least, this little Romanian bear sits not at a bench, but rather in a chair. Appearing to be lounging instead of working, Lupu lightly touches the keyboard almost perfunctorily; if one could not hear the result, one would think that there was little or no substance to the emerging sound. But in actuality, the finished product is quite lovely and tasteful, leading to a conception of this often bombastically performed work (think, for example, of Argerich) that was simpatico with that of Maestro Barenboim, who gently coaxed his forces to reveal a more tender side of this misshapen masterpiece. The gentility of it all fit nicely into a more unified approach to the piece as a whole: often it is painfully obvious that the second and third movements are simply cheap earrings hanging from the classic visage of the first. Tonight, however, each beautiful passage was intoned as a sweet and tender caress, recalling that the composer wrote the work for one of the two pianists whom he loved the most (Clara) and that later it was espoused and championed by that other supreme object of adoration (Brahms).

The performance of the symphony was the polar opposite. Tough, agile and muscular, this was exuberant music making at its sinewy best. The Staatskapelle strings play together at a fundamental level that puts any American orchestra to shame and respond enthusiastically to their leader’s creative and bold phrasing decisions. When Mr. B is paying attention, he can be very persuasive, revealing in this instance a jaunty manner designed to re-familiarize his listeners with these rousing tunes. Of course, New York audiences are much too well behaved for this, but, at the conclusion of each of the first two movements, no one would have objected too strenuously if they had applauded, so intense and exciting were the interpretations and realizations. Taking the title adagio espressivo literally, Barenboim played on his highly polished instrument magnificently, producing a third movement of truly rare sensitivity and deliciously released passion. After a rousing finale, this superb orchestra found itself locked on the horns of a dilemma: the Carnegie crowd refused to let them leave, erupting in a prolonged ovation very rare in this town. I’m sure that many hoped for an encore from this European orchestra but, with three more nights of Schumann to come, the ensemble opted to simply luxuriate in the warm glow of adulation.

This wonderful group, with a notable infusion of young musicians, is in deep trouble back home. Financially it is becoming difficult for Berlin to support three top ensembles and, since the wall came down, the Unter den Linden forces are not subsidized as they used to be. Something may have to give before too long, since Berlin, unlike Vienna, does not have a solid tourist base for musical activities. My modest proposal is this: if Germany can’t keep them, then send them here. Carnegie Hall recently flirted with the idea of rehiring their house band. Wouldn’t the Staatskapelle be a fine anchor for a new ship boldly approaching the 21st century with all sails unfurled?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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