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The Good Companions: Friends, Festivities, and Fabulous Music

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/11/2008 -  
Franz Schubert: Fantasy in F Minor for piano four hands, D. 940
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
Elliott Carter: Interventions for piano and orchestra (New York Premiere)
Igor Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps

Daniel Barenboim (Piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine (Conductor and Piano)

J. Levine, E. Carter & D. Barenboim (© Chris Lee)

On a cold, windy night in New York, torrential rain flooded over the sidewalks. Umbrellas were useless. Taxis were scarce. But music lovers are a determined lot. Inside Carnegie, Hall, almost every seat was occupied as a damp but very enthusiastic audience gathered to share in the fruits of musical genius – and friendship.

Two old friends, Daniel Barenboim and James Levine (with his extraordinary Boston Symphony Orchestra) came together to honor their friend, America’s pre-eminent composer, Elliott Carter, on the occasion of Carter’s one hundredth birthday. Levine is perhaps this country’s best-known champion of Carter’s work. Under his leadership, the Boston Symphony has made it rather a specialty.

For this occasion, the Boston Symphony along with the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (of which Barenboim is the Director) commissioned Carter to write a new piece for piano and orchestra. The result was Interventions, a seventeen minute piano concerto in one movement. Carter said that he had set out to provide music of equal weight and significance for his two distinguished friends. And so he did.

Carter gave the orchestra one long largely lyrical line, mostly for strings, a line that was periodically interrupted by an insistent often aggressive piano. Acting as intermediaries in this conversational confrontation were two instrumental trios. There was much energy in all the interplay and not a little humor, the latter provided by rather noisy commentary from the percussion section. Barenboim played forcefully but always with precision and nuance. After the last notes sounded, the audience erupted with sustained applause.

And then we saw Carter himself – climbing the steps to the stage, with the aid of his friends, Barenboim and Levine. A huge birthday cake appeared and the audience joined the musicians in a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday. The celebration of course was not just about reaching the milestone of one hundred years; it was about the unprecedented energy, drive, and creative powers that Carter has continued to manifest. Even now he remains extraordinarily prolific, composing sixteen new works in the last two years. There have been many centenary celebrations in the arts, but scarcely any of the honorees have been around to take part in the festivities.

Barenboim and Levine came together in another piano concerto -- albeit sharing in a more traditional musical relationship – a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Barenboim as soloist. He played the piece from memory. Of course, Barenboim has long been identified with Beethoven and remains one of the supreme Beethoven interpreters. But there was a particular reason that he chose to perform this work. In his book, Music Quickens Time, Barenboim, wrote that that one can best appreciate a contemporary work when it is paired on a program with a more traditional one. At this stage in his career, Beethoven was still greatly influenced by Mozart, most specifically in this piece, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Minor. Barenboim played with great expressive power and dynamic nuance. His scales and arpeggios dazzled and his trills shimmered. The audience expressed its appreciation with a standing ovation.

Also on the program was Stravinsky’s pioneering work, Le Sacre du Printemps. The reason for its inclusion was strictly biographical. Carter attended the American premiere of the work in 1924, at Carnegie Hall, where it was performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As was the case with its world premiere in Paris, eleven years before, the audience was extraordinarily hostile. Most were shocked. What they heard was not the bucolic spring of the art song or the inspiration for the gentle metaphor of Wagner’s “Du bist der Lenz” from Die Walküre. The music was aggressive and even brutal -- spring bursting through the death and devastation of winter. Carter was thrilled by the piece. It was hearing this work as an impressionable fifteen year old that set him on the course to becoming a composer.

This was a program full of riches but, for me, the highlight came at the beginning – with Barenboim and Levine’s performance of Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor for piano four hands. In this late work, Schubert was at the zenith of his creative power. The piece has four movements played without a break. A theme heard at the outset, full of tenderness, pathos and exquisite lyricism, recurs throughout; the last time it is heard in a truncated version and then cut off by a recurrence of Schubert’s second theme that goes on to develop into the extraordinary double fugue that ends the work. Barenboim and Levine performed the work with sensitivity, passion, and nuance.

Schubert wrote most of his early works for friends and amateur musicians. Only the late works were written for virtuoso performers. Here, of course, both performers were virtuosos – with stellar reputations as conductors as well as pianists. But they were also two friends making music together. The audience listened with rapt attention, privileged to be in their company.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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