Brahms Symphonies – Barenboim (16 & 17 January)

The Four Symphonies –
No.1 in C minor, Op.68
No.2 in D, Op.73
No.3 in F, Op.90
No.4 in E minor, Op.98

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim

Concerts given on 16 January (Symphonies 2 & 4) and 17

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 January, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Daniel Barenboim drove Brahms’s symphonies in the luxurious limousine that is the Staatskapelle Berlin. Speeds, usually well below the limit, were prone to lurches of acceleration and braking; the route taken was scenic.

While chronological order would have been instructive, Barenboim might best have begun with No.4, its opening ’sigh’ makes an immediate concentration to such a cycle and he deliberated Brahms’s expressive elongation ideally as a moment of recollection. Indeed the first two movements of No.4 were among the highlights, albeit the first, lyrically shot-through, could have been more momentous (not least in the vital coda) and the slow movement’s closing bars ended us in the world of Tristan; anti-Wagnerian Brahms would surely not have approved. The jocular scherzo was over-refined and closed with eyebrow-raising dynamic tweaks and tempo alterations.

The soundworld that Barenboim conjured was very beautiful, the strings radiant, the woodwinds beguiling. He secured textures that were often starlit and painstakingly balanced; fortissimos were rounded rather than craggy (it was rare that the snarl of the contrabassoon could be heard). But surely this was too consciously beautiful for Brahms, and too samey for all the symphonies over 24 hours. I was reminded that Barenboim might be emulating Celibidache, who he much admires, but applying sound is different, however ravishing, to achieving a correlation between instruments and acoustic. Equally, Barenboim’s devotion to Furtwängler allowed interventions that did not appear organic. The end of the Fourth aped Furtwängler in its manic course to tragedy. Whether convincing from Furtwängler or not, at least one felt that he did it from inner conviction; from Barenboim, however sincere the flattery, this re-creation was from outside. Similarly the hesitant steps and stringendo in the pizzicato passages in No.1’s finale ’Adagio’ introduction were implicitly that of Furtwängler.

The cycle entered none too well with No.2, a difficult piece to start cold given that it unfurls and grows; here the playing was indecisive and fallible, not least the brass, which was otherwise warm-toned and pleasingly integrated throughout both evenings. The first movement was made overly volatile, also discontinuous. What followed sounded nervy.

The following night, Staatskapelle Berlin, the orchestra of the Staatsoper, had settled and gave of their lustrous and committed best, your reviewer still feeling that such timbral luxury really is foreign to Brahms. The first movement of No.3 (the only time Barenboim observed a first movement repeat, which it literally was; No.4 doesn’t have one) impressed immediately, soaring and charged, but Barenboim made a meal of getting to the recapitulation, the music on its haunches. Similar distending of paragraphs loomed large in the development of the C minor’s first movement, more the lumbering threat of Fasolt and Fafner (and a further unexpected Wagnerism) than the surge of Brahms’s classical lineage. If Barenboim’s Romantic accretions compelled attention while sometimes missing the target, he also seems trapped in an interpretative axis that, although it’s one he is absolutely at home in, may also suppress other aspects that he would like to bring out or sound in a particular way.

Brahms’s taut forms and logical progressions often had to give way to something altogether freer – and against the music. The ’Andante’ of Symphony 3 began adagio and broadened to largo; yes, it was heavenly but just seemed static – not a question of hanging on every note but waiting for the next one to arrive. It’s not tempo, it’s more to do with feel and a sense of direction. Although I prescribe to the notion that a score is a guide to performers, if you stretch as concise a movement as this as Barenboim did, one that eventually lost all sense of pulse, how do you treat the ’Poco allegretto’ that follows? As a second slow movement was Barenboim’s answer. Again, wonderfully mellifluous … “gilding the lily” I wrote down, only to hear a colleague say these exact words come the interval.

Brahms’s C minor finally brought him the long-deliberated symphony he strove for; it also makes a triumphant concert close, and did so here with the coda taken in the score’s one tempo than the more usual sectional approach – unexpected in the context of Barenboim’s overall stratagem.

Despite moments that were overly cultivated and made-over, this cycle exuded a powerful resonance that remains firmly in the memory. There were times when I thought, perhaps uncharitably, that Barenboim’s conception was somewhat ’designer’. Yet he is steeped in this music’s tradition. Nor is he a showman – his conducting style is economic, his left hand kept by his side for long stretches when not needed, and his disposition of the strings, that is antiphonal violins with cellos left-centre and basses behind them, is what the composer wrote for.

An overall assessment of this cycle is that it was by turns fascinating and infuriating, unidiomatic and gratifying, perplexing and interesting. What must also be said is that Barenboim’s orchestra is often a thing of wonder, and has come on leaps and bounds – his appointment for life as Chief Conductor is understandable. This cycle left its mark. It had a definite agenda, there was never a bar of literalism, and the music was never taken for granted. Things happen with the Barenboim/Staatskapelle partnership, and did so over these two nights. However one might disagree or be persuaded by Barenboim’s approach, there was no doubting the personality and faith that he and his orchestra brought to this timeless music.

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