Daniel Barenboim & Staatskapelle Berlin at Royal Festival Hall: The Bruckner Project [Symphony 9]

Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482
Symphony No.9 in D minor

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 20 April, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Daniel Barenboim. Photograph: Cordula Groth courtesy Teldec Classical InternationalThe juxtaposition of Mozart and Bruckner frequently comes off well, and this particular combination was especially satisfying as Daniel Barenboim completed his three-concert “Bruckner Project” as part of Shell Classic International. The transition from Mozart at his grandest (the key of E flat had a special resonance for him) to Bruckner at his darkest (the wracked-with-trepidation D minor Ninth Symphony might almost be subtitled de profundis clamavi) was particularly apt, a reversal of the darkness-to-light found in works such as Beethoven’s Fifth; and Mozart’s longest (arguably finest) piano concerto and Bruckner’s final symphony are in their very different ways radical works and represent a significant stylistic evolution.

Barenboim’s Mozartean credentials date back half-a-century (I first heard him play a Mozart concerto in 1966). These days he inhabits the music, like a great actor bringing a well-loved role vividly to life. A slimmed-down Staatskapelle Berlin was seated at the back of the stage (not such a good idea) if closely grouped round the piano with its lid removed. Even heard from an excellent Stalls seat, there was a lack of transparency, partly to do with the sound that Staatskapelle Berlin produces, which is darker-hued than we are accustomed to in London. K482 is the first piano concerto in which Mozart uses clarinets as well as flute, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani. It is Mozart at his most grandly symphonic, possibly the most demanding to play and direct. Certainly Barenboim sounded least at ease in its first movement, a little stretched technically and taking some time to settle. Thereafter the performance really took wing. The slow movement, surely the most profoundly melancholic Andante ever written, was superbly concentrated, at times a wind serenade with piano obbligato, its close where the music mutates into C major a shaft of light transfiguring the C minor gloom, and here magically achieved. The playful finale, taken well up to speed, is interrupted by an Andantino with the wind-band still in attendance, a moment recalled in Barenboim’s cadenza before the exuberant dash to the finishing post.

There is a canard that Bruckner wrote the same symphony many times. Complete nonsense! The tremolos that open symphonies 4, 7, 8 and 9 are altogether different and the Ninth in particular, far from being a swansong, is more like one of those great Michelangelo sculptures hewn out of marble. In both instances their unfinished states are part and parcel of their greatness. It would be idle to pretend that in terms of orchestral polish Staatskapelle Berlin is flawless but the qualities these players bring to this music are more precious than mere execution. This Bruckner 9 may not have been an overwhelming seismic event but it was impressive, emerging from silence, moving forward in long paragraphs, with brass embedded into rather than dominating the string sound (a rare pleasure!) and, above all, with an absolute sense of where the jugular lies in each movement.

Conducting from memory, Barenboim relished the score’s every inner detail – such as at the outset of the work’s serene leave-taking, violins gently haloing the Wagner tubas, the sound warmed for a moment by the violas, a point here perfectly but seldom made. Frequently this Adagio ‘last movement’ (Bruckner died and left the finale unfinished) is subjected to a self-consciously valedictory treatment. It is, however, uncomfortable, exploratory, visionary and angst-ridden music if ultimately without answers, a point well-made by Carlo Maria Giulini in his wonderful recordings. Barenboim does not duck its oddity, a voice crying in the wilderness; the wandering questioning double-bass passage after the Adagio’s opening was given unvarnished. Elsewhere too there was a natural expansion and contraction: the lead-in to the first-movement coda was allowed a really radical but fully sustained slowing, or, with the arrival of the scherzo, the way the cello tune was made expansive within the quicksilver trio. For all the occasional blips in execution this was great Bruckner.

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