Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela
Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker
Reviewed: 17 January, 2016
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Christopher Dyment’s engrossing new book, Conducting the Brahms Symphonies – from Brahms to Boult, begins: “Brahms played his Pianoforte Concerto in D minor superbly. I especially noted his emphasizing each of those tremendous shakes in the first movement by placing a short rest between the last note of one and the first small note before the next. During those short stops he would lift his hands high and let them come down on the keys like that of a lion’s paw.”
George Henschel’s vivid description of Brahms at the piano, dating from 5 February 1876, encapsulates the composer’s own approach, commanding yet free, almost improvisatory and intensely personal. Other such descriptions attest its accuracy, at least during his prime as a pianist in the 1850s to the 1870s, and throughout the essential elements remain constant.
”Commanding, yet free”: this is surely the essence of a great Brahms performance. We have long known of Daniel Barenboim’s love of this composer’s music – from his very first recordings, made prior to his first appearance in Britain, in January 1956 (at the age of 13 – the 60th-anniversary of which this concert commemorated), included Brahms’s Intermezzo, Opus 119/3 – which, together with his 1967 recordings of the Concertos with Barbirolli and later preserved accounts, attest to Brahms’s music having played a significant role in Barenboim’s repertoire.
Nonetheless, being enamoured of a composer’s work does not invariably mean that your playing will meet with universal acclaim, and I found myself returning to Henschel’s comments several times during this concert, most often during the first movement of the D-minor Concerto, which proceeded at several not invariably linked spacious tempos – none of which could be described as ‘majestic’ (the marked Maestoso) – which tended to rob the music of inner momentum: riddled with ruinous rubato, occasionally far too slow or not unified in accuracy of attack or unanimous ensemble. In other words, the first movement offered nothing in terms of genuine continuity or musical coherence.
The Adagio also meandered somewhat, neither soloist nor conductor taking control of the music’s relaxed pulse and holding this greatly expressive music fully together, and – once more – the Finale suffered from uncertainty in the basic tempo. Barenboim played more than adequately, but there were occasional slips from both him and the orchestra, with the latter, on this showing, appearing little better than routine.
The Second Concerto was relatively – only relatively – better played, and a sense of basic tempo was again absent in both the first and second movements, recalling all too vividly Barenboim’s 1991 Munich version with Celibidache: it was just one thing after another with inorganic and unnecessary changes of tempo. The Andante was much better, with a splendid cello solo from Edgar Calderón, but the Finale returned to the to-ing and fro-ing of tempos. The orchestral contribution was smooth, efficient if disappointingly characterless; overall, this was adequate albeit only intermittently distinguished.
As a long-time admirer of Barenboim I cannot hide my considerable disappointment at this concert; naturally enough, given the occasion, the performers were greeted with a standing ovation, in response to which Barenboim gave ‘Traumes Wirren’ from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke (Opus 12), which did not sound completely inimitable on the Barenboim-Maene piano – a not wholly convincing recent instrument: it speaks well enough, has a delightful top, but the middle-register chording gave the distinct impression that something was missing.