Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim – Beethoven & Schoenberg (1)

Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Pelleas und Melisande, Op.5

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 29 January, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Daniel Barenboim. Photograph: ©Kevin RogersAs Jude Kelly observed, Daniel Barenboim has reached “rock-star status”. He may be able to pack the Royal Festival Hall to capacity on four nights, even with Schoenberg’s music on the agenda – and there is also a screen in The Clore Ballroom to take care of the overflow; free, too – but he retains propriety and largesse for the music that he plays and conducts. As part of Shell Classic International (an ongoing and just extended example of very welcome corporate patronage for The Arts), Barenboim is playing Beethoven’s five piano concertos and four pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, four concerts in five days, and which includes “an illustrated talk” (on February 2) by Barenboim on Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Opus 31; complex and challenging that work may be, but it’s also one of the masterpieces of the last century.

Staatskapelle Berlin may not quite be one of the “Great Orchestras” that this series promotes – although it is very distinctive (yet so too are the ensembles in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester (Hallé), all of which used to come to London more regularly than at present) – but its members are focussed and affable and seem to find Barenboim a mix of buddy, father-figure and muse. Certainly in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto – begun with an ear-tickling pianissimo – there was a real sense of making chamber music, not so much a ‘give and take’ but a willingness on the orchestra’s part to go as far as Barenboim in giving the music time to express itself and to explore its romantic and whimsical side. This was not so much a ‘young man’s work’ but one reminisced in tranquillity – the slow movement particularly rapt – but with a rambunctious finale to perk things along. The striking first-movement cadenza should have been owned-up to; it wasn’t one of the three that Beethoven left us, and could well be by Edwin Fischer, as was being suggested afterwards.

If the Beethoven had at times been unvaried, even predictable in its very points of individuality, the layering and textural variety of the string-playing was a constant delight, and such exploration of timbral capability was also a feature of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, composed just into the twentieth-century, Maurice Maeterlinck’s play also inspiring music by Debussy, Fauré and Sibelius. Schoenberg’s score grows out of shadowy fragments and is indebted to Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, tonality straining at the leash, Schoenberg’s silky chromaticism stretching melodic contours without compromising on ravishing our senses; and not without wit, either, in the use of Viennese waltz rhythms and, maybe, including a sly reference to Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which was already a few years old when Schoenberg began to pen Pelleas.

Barenboim, absolutely involved in the course of this work, and conducting from memory, conjured a subtle and collegiate performance, just occasionally fallible, one that was able to deliver double-whammies without fear of being overwhelming or inorganically arrived at. Woodwind solos were piquant, those from principal cellist and violist poetic, and balance was exacting throughout the orchestra’s extravagant ranks, antiphonal violins and some transparent-sounding but supportive (left-positioned) double basses being further plus-points. This was a rigorous yet fantastical performance, one that conjured a vivid narrative and clarified Schoenberg’s strangeness of sound and harmony. At the end of forty minutes, one was in no doubt that something momentous had taken place.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 3 February at 7 p.m.

  • Southbank Centre

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