Staatskapelle Berlin at Royal Festival Hall – Daniel Barenboim plays Liszt’s Piano Concertos … Pierre Boulez conducts Wagner

Eine Faust-Ouvertüre
Piano Concerto No.2 in A
Siegfried Idyll
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Pierre Boulez

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 June, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Daniel Barenboim. Photograph: Monika Rittershaus/TeldecLiszt’s daughter Cosima became Wagner’s second wife (she was moving on from Hans von Bülow); Wagner wrote Siegfried Idyll for her as a birthday gift; and Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez have been buddies for many decades. With Barenboim’s current orchestra as the go-between, the scene was set for collegiate music-making.

It was sort of like that; certainly there was unity in the (somewhat earthbound) performances that made both of Liszt’s piano concertos seem unusually cohesive – here was a collective appreciation of the composer’s intentions – and if (visually) Barenboim seemed more interactive with the orchestra than was Boulez (although the Staatskapelle’s musicians were never less than secure), the cogency of Liszt’s designs were able carry all before it. Yet, if Boulez had the letter of the scores, he didn’t always have their spirit, and Barenboim, not the most transcendental of pianists, tended to force loud passages (aided by much pedal) and lacked for lightness elsewhere, and was also generally colour-less, not least in the treble. These were not terribly involving or even exciting performances; and often soloists from the orchestra played with more character than did the pianist. Although both works have grandstand conclusions, the Second Piano Concerto was offered first, and opened with poetic woodwinds (sadly intruded upon by the tones of someone’s infernal mobile), but Barenboim’s galumphing rhythms distorted the line and fortissimo unison passages found the piano outflanked by the orchestra, although the latter wasn’t particularly dominating and was in itself well-balanced. The First Piano Concerto fared better, wings flapping more, even if Barenboim’s brand of rhetoric wanted for spontaneity and the scherzo section was short on sparkle, although slower passages were shapely. Curiously here was another account this year (the previous one being from Boris Berezovsky with Antonio Pappano conducting) to have the triangle-player (the instrument has a solo in the third section) sitting next to the pianist. Maybe someone has researched the authenticity of this, but it seems a novelty too far and in the concerto’s finale this instrument is then divorced from the rest of the percussion.

Pierre Boulez Boulez’s take on Wagner was more compelling and benefited from him retaining Staatskapelle Berlin’s seating plan for the strings with antiphonal violins, and double basses to the left behind cellos, precisely the arrangement that Liszt and Wagner composed for. A Faust Overture (which Boulez has championed over a long time) was brooding and potent, the conductor very attentive to dynamic gradations, and lucid-sounding, Boulez typically aiming for clarity rather than all-purpose power. Just a couple of months after his 86th-birthday Boulez’s baton-less gestures may be at a minimum, but he remains a surety of wholeness and lucidity. Although hardly ideal for the furthest recesses of a large auditorium such as the Royal Festival Hall (one imagines), his conducting of Siegfried Idyll, with a much-reduced Staatskapelle (if with more players than serenaded Frau Wagner on Christmas Day 1870) – Boulez had six first violins down to two double basses – this was a beautifully phrased, tenderly played realisation, rapt in effect, the arc of the piece perfectly realised.

This was the last concert (surprisingly not picked up by BBC Radio 3 for live or recorded broadcast) in the current season of RFH promotions under the banner of Shell Classic International. Following Liszt No.1, as an encore Barenboim offered the first of Liszt’s four Valses oubliées. He toyed with it, so let’s say he teased his adoring audience, but it didn’t necessarily convince, although it was quite witty, individual and throwaway. Shell Classic International returns for 2011-12 and both Barenboim and Boulez, and not forgetting Claudio Abbado, are a part of it.

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