Chetana Nagavajara

The first night of the Berlin Music Festival on September 2, 2014, was meant to create a sensation, and sensational it was. Daniel Barenboim, world-famous conductor and pianist, wanted to prove to himself and to his fan club that he could remain unassailable as a marathon runner. So why not have both Brahms piano concerti in the same evening? Furthermore, why not engage the rising star, Gustavo Dudamel, to conduct Barenboim’s own Staaatskapelle Berlin, the orchestra of the State Opera that Barenboim directs. At the conclusion of the concert, the Berlin public went wild. The whole thing left me cold, perhaps because of jet lag?

play piano

(Daniel Barenboim)

At 72 Barenboim still looks robust, and he could have made it, had he had time to practice. Any experienced music lover could tell that he had had no time to practice. Would it have been necessary to practice because he had played the two masterpieces when he was still in his twenties under Sir John Barbirolli and also recorded them. Live performances with Celilidache available as DVD also attest to his prowess. I have admired Barenboim as a pianist all these years, especially his Beethoven: I heard him play Beethoven V in Berlin about 10 years ago, and it was memorable. (I don’t think much of him as a conductor, and his “Wozzeck” last year was a catastrophe.) But to me, Brahms has never been his strong point. He just can’t break through those webs of compositional complexity to get to the heart of this man from Hamburg. The Brahms Marathon on September 2 was a show, exceedingly emphatic throughout, very loud and very soft, full of contrast and above all, drama. The whole thing was a GESTURE to captivate his fans, it was not an interpretation.

The simple fact was that he could not play all the notes properly; some of them were inaudible. The 5 fingers of each hand did not form a unity any more. (He should have taken masterclasses with Miss Wang from China!) His strategy was to emphasize chords, those big chords that he played so loud that filled the Philharmonie audience with awe. Throughout the entire evening there were perhaps 3 or 4 passages that really touched your heart. Gustavo Dudamel was too modest to teach the Maestro how to cope with the problem. Being just a shadow of his former self and too proud to look for support from the conductor, Barenboim only came to life when guided by the heart-rending cello solo, played by Frau Sennu Laine. Yes, he took the cue from none other than Brahms himself, “When in trouble, think chamber-musically. Listen to your colleague(s)”. And I got the message too as a Brahms admirer all these long years: those solo passages by instrumentalists of the symphony orchestra are meant as a prop to the soloist. Think of the oboe solo in the Violin Concerto and how it blends into the melodic line of the violin. To parody the French poet,Verlaine, a little, I would say, “La musique de chambre avant toute chose…” (Chamber music before and above everything…”) Those felicitous moments were rare during the evening. Just too bad!

I have not talked about interpretation. There is not much to talk about. Barenboim had more basic problems to worry about and was in no position to devote himself adequately to the question of interpretation. He played both concerti the same (boisterous) way. And at this point I must give credit to Gustavo Dudamel for having thought differently. He took Concerto No. 1 as a SYMPHONY WITH PIANO OBLIGATO, or more precisely, a CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA with the piano performing the role of a percussive instrument. There was no other way to save the situation when the pianist could no longer deliver! What an insightful young man, and his command of the orchestra was superlative: one could hear what instruments were doing what. It would be a sacrilege to say that at this stage the man from Venezuela is of the same level as the legendary Karajan in terms of orchestral technique. And I am prepared to commit that sacrilege. How will he grow from a rising star to a serious musician in the years to come? It would be a tragedy if he were to grow into, say, a second Zubin Mehta, now that he also has the Los Angeles Philharmonic as his nurturing ground. (I heard Zubin Mehta in his twenties in Vienna; he was very musical.) Definitely Dudamel has already overtaken Simon Rattle.


(Gustavo Dudamel)

Dudamel’s approach to Concerto No.2 is very interesting indeed. To him this is no longer a symphony in disguise, but a TRIBUTE TO MOZART as the pioneer of the piano concerto. Had he had a more cooperative pianist, he might have proved his point to the audience. But with the elder statesman of Western music hammering away at the piano on the same stage, culture demanded that he remained a loyal accompanist.

While the Berlin audience was still giving their hero a standing ovation, I left the Philharmonie early in time for Bus No. 200 and got home in less than an hour. Pondering over the experience of decline and fall of a distinguished musician, I could not help being reminded of our own great violinist, Suthin Thesarak, who at 73 played 3 violin concerti in the same programme. I wrote a very respectful review of that concert and tried to persuade our guru to stay way from marathons in the future. Physical limits are set by nature. Thinking back of Berlin, I suddenly recalled that in the 1920s, the child prodigy, Yehudi Menuhin, aged 12, came to Berlin to play 3 violin concerti in the same programne. He could do it, and he did it so well that Einstein could not resist making the memorable statement that hearing the young Menuhin is tantamount to admitting that God exists. BUT WHY COMPETE WITH A CHILD OF 12 WHEN YOU ARE 72?



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