Marathon Dan

Carnegie Hall billed it as Perspectives: Daniel Barenboim, but “Blitz: Daniel Barenboim” might have been a more accurate description. This two-season extravaganza has already presented the musician of the moment as conductor, pianist, accompanist, duo-recitalist, chamber musician, lecturer, and eager courter of the press. Right now, he is presiding over the grand finale, leading the Staatskapelle Berlin in a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies and five piano concertos, with the maestro at the keyboard. The only missing ingredient in this bulging showcase is opera – Barenboim is also a busy opera conductor in Europe – but apparently the Metropolitan couldn’t be persuaded to work any dates into its schedule. Even without that, this factotum’s activities in New York over the past year make our notorious workaholic, James Levine, look positively lazy.

Barenboim is certainly a prodigious musical talent, and he has achieved a high level of excellence in every performing capacity he has cared to cultivate. Even so, I occasionally had to pause during this marathon and wonder if it wasn’t driven more by industry than inspiration. Just before launching his Beethoven cycle, Barenboim gave a solo piano recital that was far from enjoyable. The program could not have been more appetizing or thoughtfully conceived: Liszt’s three Petrarch Sonnets and his Dante Sonata, followed by the first two books of Iberia by Albéniz, a composer much influenced by Liszt. This is music that demands virtuoso treatment, and despite some note-grabbing in the sonata, Barenboim, at 58, still devours the keyboard with the greedy appetite of a precocious teenager. Yet it all sounded harsh, glaring, in-your-face, and often downright ugly. The lofty expressive element that inhabits even Liszt’s most flamboyant scores was never suggested, while Albéniz’s loveliest and most intricate passagework seemed relentlessly grim.

The evening before his recital, Barenboim shared the stage with Radu Lupu in an evening of four-hand piano duets by Schubert. This glorious music is notoriously difficult to balance. Even with the pianists exercising every care to keep the textures clear and properly proportioned, the effect, at least from where I sat, was still frequently cloudy and inarticulate. Worse, I didn’t feel I was in the presence of compatible temperaments. Lupu is a more restrained and introspective player than his partner, and is ideally suited to explore the lyrical qualities of these pieces as well as their depth and scope. He does precisely that on a Sony recording of the F-minor Fantasie with Murray Perahia, a kindred spirit, and I recommend it as an antidote. In Carnegie Hall the blend neither mixed nor matched.

For as long as I can remember, it’s been okay to sneer at an opera by any early-twentieth-century Italian composer not named Puccini. Come to think of it, not so long ago even Puccini was trashed by superior people, who considered his contemporaries decadent, shabby frauds beneath contempt. Since the picture is unlikely to change anytime soon, it takes real courage for an organization like Teatro Grattacielo to specialize in this despised corner of the repertory. Over the past few seasons, the company has given concert performances of operas by such unfashionable composers as Mascagni, Montemezzi, and Cilea, with works by Giordano, Respighi, and Wolf-Ferrari promised in the future. The group’s latest offering, last month at Alice Tully Hall, was even more esoteric: Riccardo Zandonai’s I Cavalieri di Ekebú, first seen at La Scala in 1925 with no less than Arturo Toscanini conducting and never before performed in North America.

Zandonai has not entirely vanished from sight. The Metropolitan gave a lovely production of his most famous opera, Francesca da Rimini, in 1984, and his fragrant setting of the Romeo and Juliet tale also turns up from time to time. I Cavalieri di Ekebú, though, is perhaps his most ambitious piece, an operatic version of Selma Lagerlöf’s Swedish novel of love and redemption that was also made into a famous silent film starring Greta Garbo. The plot tells how a charismatic preacher, defrocked and alcoholic, is redeemed by the love of a village girl and an old woman called La Comandante, whose iron forges at Ekeby Manor are run by knights she recruits from the distraught and destitute. It’s not a story that sounds promising from a short synopsis, but it delivers the goods in all three genres – novel, film, and opera – thanks to its vibrant theatrical characters and an almost palpable sense of time and place.

Atmosphere, in fact, was always Zandonai’s strong suit, and his compositional technique was fully up-to-date, drawing on Strauss for orchestral coloring and Debussy for harmonic flavoring: snowy northern landscapes, jolly Christmas revels, desolate country inns, and a raucous finale as La Comandante dies amid the clangor of her forges, anvils, and trip-hammers (the instrumental effects are consistently imaginative and beautifully scored). Zandonai may not have had Puccini’s sophisticated melodic gift, but he was a master of declamatory arioso and he creates vivid character portraits with his vocal lines – Giosta’s long Act I narrative describing his cursed past is an especially effective sequence. Like nearly all Italian operas of this period, though, I Cavalieri di Ekebú needs special treatment in order to work onstage: lavish scenery, a virtuoso orchestra, and – most important of all – powerhouse singing personalities committed to the idiom.

Unfortunately, the lusty vocal traditions that drove these operas are pretty much lost, and the tireless heroic tenors, gleaming dramatic sopranos, and full-throated mezzos Zandonai wrote for are also extinct. That said, Teatro Grattacielo’s cast at least made a game stab at the piece. Gerard Powers (Giosta), Lori Phillips (Anna), and Mariana Paunova (La Comandante) may have been vocally underpowered, but they showed a basic understanding of what the opera needs along with a willingness to take risks. The instrumental and choral music is also fiercely demanding – a challenge more efficiently met by the orchestra under Robert Ashens than the rather weak-voiced Oratorio Society of New York. No matter. The audience was clearly delighted to discover an important score from a neglected age, and for that Teatro Grattacielo deserves credit as well as encouragement to forge ahead.

Marathon Dan