Sunday, December 27, 2015

November 22, 2009: Schoenberg the middleman

It is hard to imagine a better program to illustrate the musical tensions of the latter half of the nineteenth century and their impact on the early twentieth than the one prepared by Sir Simon Rattle for the second concert by the Berliner Philharmoniker in Davies Symphony Hall last night.  On the one hand we had Richard Wagner, trying to transcend the musical conventions of his time by serving the dramatic visions of his own idiosyncratic version of hero mythology.  That transcendence would carry him into unknown territories of ambiguous harmonies and sinuous melodies that never seemed to come to closure.  On the other had there was Johannes Brahms, clearly laboring under the influence of Beethoven but always seeking out new approaches to structure to fend off succumbing to that influence.  Brahms believed one could move forward without rejecting the past with the flamboyance of Wagnerian transcendence.

Rattle selected these two composers to begin and conclude, respectively, last night's concert.  He began with the opening prelude for Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, ironically the one opera that turns away from the exploits of mythic heroes in favor of the affairs of ordinary mortals (who happen to be seriously involved with the practice of music, but in an amateur capacity).  After the intermission he concluded the evening with Brahms' second symphony, Opus 73 in D major, a work that comfortably dons the attire of nineteenth-century symphonic style without shying away from some significantly progressive advances in formal structure.

Between the dialectical opposition of Brahms' defense of the thesis of symphonic form and Wagner's defiant antithesis through dramatism, Rattle introduced Arnold Schoenberg as an agent of Hegelian synthesis through this composer's first chamber symphony, Opus 9.  Originally conceived for fifteen solo instruments in 1906 (Opus 9a), Schoenberg later published a version (Opus 9b) for full orchestra, which probably received its first performance in 1936.  This is a work that owes much to the impact that Wagner had on how one could think about harmony at all;  and it is hard to listen to the opening chord progression without reflecting on the first chord progression of Tristan und Isolde, regarded by many as the first gesture of twentieth-century music.  However, if Wagner worked by extending his melodic lines to greater lengths, Schoenberg tended to prefer smaller scales, often reducing a melodic motif to a single interval, if not a single chord.  Nevertheless, like Brahms, Schoenberg was also occupied with questions of overall architecture;  and Opus 9 may be viewed as the culmination of the ideal set forth by Robert Schumann, Brahms' mentor, to encompass all of symphonic form in a single movement.  Schoenberg thus takes the fundamental disagreement between Wagner and Brahms over "which way is forward" and turns opposition into "peaceful coexistence" in this twenty-minute single-movement symphony.

A composition that packs so much legacy into such a brief period of time is clearly fodder for analysts anxious to expose every last intricate detail.  Indeed, one of the first extended analyses of this work was published by Schoenberg's own pupil, Alban Berg, in 1913.  The real analysis, however, comes from those who aspire to do this work justice through performance, caring less about each "tree of intellect" out of preference for the forest of "the music itself."  Rattle has had this aspiration at least since his days with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which provided his first serious "laboratory" for mastering Schoenberg performance technique.  Now he has brought that mastery to Berlin to expand the scope of an orchestra that pretty much sets the bar when it comes to performances of both Brahms and Wagner.

The result was nothing short of dazzling.  Schoenbergian passages that have left other conductors in a fog emerge in crystal clarity under Rattle's guidance.  The "themes" clearly have no place in nineteenth-century traditions;  but there is no doubt in the listener's mind that this composition is a symphony.  Indeed, from a rhetorical point of view, it comes to a triumphant conclusion that does not differ in any substantive way from the conclusion of Brahms' second symphony or, for that matter, the Meistersinger prelude.  Schoenberg was not just being irritable about his personal frustrations when he said, "My music is not modern;  it's just badly played."  He was just stating the obvious precept that one cannot perform without understanding and that understanding often takes hard work.  Rattle's efforts on Schoenberg's behalf have become our benefits in the form of experiences of listening to Schoenberg that those who preceded us rarely, if every, had for themselves.

When the Berliner Philharmoniker began its current tour at Carnegie Hall, James Oestreich wrote the following about Rattle's approach to Brahms in The New York Times:
… Mr. Rattle’s readings of Brahms’s Second Symphony on Thursday and the Third and Fourth on Friday (the First was reviewed in these pages on Friday) were altogether more compelling than his Mahler performances with the orchestra at Carnegie two years ago. There he seemed to be laboring to extract performances forcibly from the players; here he seemed more inclined simply to let them play.
To some extent Oestreich may have been influenced by the minimality of Rattle's activities on the podium.  I prefer to think that, while meticulous guidance may have been necessary to do justice to the performance of Schoenberg, where Brahms was concerned much of the technique required for performance had been internalized.  As I had observed in his approach to the Orchestra at the San Francisco Conservatory on Thursday evening, Rattle's priority in conducting Brahms was primarily one of coordination.  As I used to be told, "You do not teach your grandmother how to suck eggs."  The Berliner Philharmoniker has been playing Brahms since the days of Brahms himself, and Rattle knew how to apply that legacy to its best advantage.  The same can be said of his approach to Wagner.  Thus, these two composers, so opposed in their musical perspectives, both emerged in the best possible light, each enjoying the advantages of his own merits, merits which have been presented by this particular ensemble to audiences around the world for well over a century.

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