The high point of the Carnegie Hall’s season – a traversal over nine almost consecutive nights of Bruckner’s numbered symphonies – has finally arrived. Allegedly, it’s the first time that such a cycle is presented in the United States. The challenge of this endeavor has been assumed by the esteemed Staatskapelle Berlin under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. Striving to refute the “one symphony in nine parts” adage and underlining Bruckner’s attempts to build more and more daring harmonic experiments and complex musical forms is a task that the orchestra and its Kapellmeister should be well prepared for. They performed this cycle in Europe several times and have recorded it as well. Bruckner’s music is particularly dear to Barenboim over his long career. To fill the programs, the conductor decided to preface every symphony with a contrasting Mozart concerto, mostly piano ones, showcasing not only the ensemble’s power and rich sound but also its nimbleness and elegance.

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin © Steve J Sherman
Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Steve J Sherman

The first evening paired Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat major, K.595 with Bruckner’s First Symphony. If there is a common thread shared by the two works, it’s less the composers’ interest in Baroque music, not so much on display, but the connections to operatic music. Mozart’s piano always “sings” with the simplicity and the expressive power of a quasi-human voice. In this concerto, the interplay between piano and woodwinds in the Larghetto is as varied and vibrant as the dialogue of voices in an opera. The music is occasionally reminiscent of Die Zauberflöte, also composed in Mozart's finale year. In Bruckner’s symphony, the third theme of the first movement brings to mind Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The opening bars of the Adagio are imbued with Tristan-like chromaticism. All these associations were made palpable and real by a renowned Wagnerian conductor and instrumentalists used to play every night in the orchestra pit of the Staatsoper Berlin.

The Staatskapelle Berlin at Carnegie Hall © Steve J Sherman
The Staatskapelle Berlin at Carnegie Hall
© Steve J Sherman

Like two earlier concertos in B flat, Mozart’s last one is rather more intimate in nature than majestic, the music turning often to the minor mode. Conducting from the keyboard, Barenboim emphasized the prevalent nostalgic aura of the work. Remarkably, he adapted the weight of his keyboard touch to every new melody. On the other side, the artist was always mindful of the playful dynamic contrasts, making the rhythms come alive.

The Symphony no. 1 in C minor was the only one that Bruckner composed in Linz. Soon after its première, he settled in Vienna for good. Occupying a diminished position in the composer’s canon, less an affirmation of a new world as Mahler’s First Symphony is, Bruckner’s opus is fascinating to listen to, not only for the premonition of things to come. Many characteristics of Bruckner’s later symphonic output are already distinguishable here: successive climaxes stopped right before their resolution, majestic use of brass instruments, caesurae delimiting musical ideas. The overall impression that the listener gets is very different though. For example, both the First and Second symphonies are in C minor, but there is a huge difference between them from the very beginning. The Second starts with a string tremolo that will be the pattern heard in all the subsequent openings. The First’s initial theme sounds like a march with the violins’ melody punctuated by horns in F.

Daniel Barenboim at Carnegie Hall © Steve J Sherman
Daniel Barenboim at Carnegie Hall
© Steve J Sherman

The composer nicknamed the work “das kecke Besserl/ the cheeky little minx” implying a certain unruliness perceived mainly in the Scherzo. Barenboim decided to play the so-called “Linz” version of the symphony not the later, extensively revised and more tamed, Vienna variation. The Staatskapelle navigated with assurance the treacherous swings from massive to sensuous so typical for Bruckner’s music. Unusual for an American audience, the conductor placed the cellos on the left and the basses in the center, behind the brass. The blended sound he obtained was marvelous. Barenboim didn’t fully respect the indicated tempi when he wanted to draw attention to a special passage, but overall the dynamic tensions were well preserved. In addition, he stressed with precision every harmonic move.

In his 25 years as music director of the Staatskapelle, the oldest but not always the most famous Berlin orchestra, Barenboim brought the ensemble to an astonishing level of artistry. Scheduling the Bruckner symphonic series and the accompanying Mozart concertos was meant both as a celebration of Barenboim’s quarter century in Berlin and the 60th anniversary of his Carnegie Hall debut. The maestro proved again that, pianist or conductor, he is, first and foremost, an extraordinary musician.