As the musicians of Staatskapelle Berlin filed onto the stage of Carnegie Hall to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.22, the gentleman sitting behind me told his seat-mate: “But then, Mozart’s Piano Concertos really should be conducted from the keyboard.” Daniel Barenboim has been performing them this way for decades, but if one wanted evidence that it’s not necessarily the best way, here it was. If he’d been able to focus more on the orchestra, he might have had it play more softly in accompanimental passages. Barenboim’s tone at forte and above was hard and glassy, and some intricacies were buried. And had he been able to concentrate more fully on the solo part, he might have rushed less and fewer details would have been smudged.
The Andante felt unsettled – not emotionally, which would have been appropriate, but in terms of tempo; the pushing and pulling proved distracting and rendered the movement’s unusual structure episodic. Odd accents and a general sense of rhythmic instability, caused partly (again) by rushing, gave the Finale a manic rather than playful quality. The most satisfying playing from both soloist and orchestra came in the Finale’s central Minuet, which was given quite slowly and with an exquisite sense of nostalgic fragility.
Some of the manic energy from the Mozart spilled over into the first movement of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. The opening few minutes felt impatient, and pretty much ignored Bruckner’s simple tempo designation: Majestoso. This freneticism continued until the second subject, where finally the relentless push forward gave way to relaxed lyricism. Barenboim swept through the long sequences of the development section masterfully, but his approach to Bruckner might be described as apologetic. So many of the odd transitions and musical quirks are ironed out, as if they were embarrassments, and so many extraordinary moments were made ordinary.
There were some lovely moments, however. The first movement’s coda unfolded naturally and inexorably to its glorious peroration, and the major-key theme in the Adagio was as radiant as the beatific smile of an old master’s Madonna. But the Scherzo was sleek rather than rustic; the double basses tiptoed shyly through the opening bars while the jagged motifs dancing above were smoothed together. And the Finale, which started at a brisk tempo (ignoring Bruckner’s ‘not too fast’ warning) got faster and faster, as if trying to create tension through speed rather than allowing the music to speak for itself and in its own sweet time.