Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim – Beethoven & Schoenberg (3)

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 1 February, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Daniel Barenboim. Photograph: ©Kevin RogersThe third concert of the four that Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin are giving of Beethoven and Schoenberg was a decidedly uneven affair. It may well be that Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces will linger longest in the mind. Seldom does one hear a work by Schoenberg so convincingly conducted (and from memory) or played with such passionate thrust and panache.

Five Orchestral Pieces dates from 1909 (there are two revisions) and received its first performance under Sir Henry Wood at a Queens Hall Promenade concert in 1912. There was general hostility from public and press alike, yet a perceptive critic such as Ernest Newman wrote at the time “Schoenberg is not the mere fool or madman he is generally supposed to be”. At this point Schoenberg had abandoned the key system in favour of atonality but had not yet arrived at a full serial technique. As with certain passages in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, one senses the struggle of an old world pushed to its very limits. Originally Schoenberg gave a title to each piece – ‘Vorgefühl’ (Presentiments), ‘Vergangenes’ (Things Past), ‘Farben’ (Colours), ‘Peripetia’ – a term from Greek tragedy indicating that moment where there is a sudden change of fortune on which the tragedy turns – and ‘Das obligate Rezitativ’, the most obviously melodic of the set. Later he dropped these titles for fear that listeners would look for too literal a musical description but they are helpful in defining the distinctive character of each Piece.

Not merely does Schoenberg push tonality to its very limits but emotions too are super-charged as if the work were a musical counterpart to an imaginary Expressionist painting of extreme violence. In the first piece, ‘Presentiments’, there is a sense of violent foreboding which seems to prefigure the cataclysm soon to come. Barenboim launched into this demanding and innovative score with total confidence and conviction. At many moments despite the massive forces employed, separate tone colours are picked out and matched together almost like chamber music; in the third piece (‘Farben’) the opening chord from solo viola, bassoon, clarinet and two flutes is taken over by solo double bass, horn, bassoon, trumpet and cor anglais. Careful balances are everything. Without a score, yet having clearly internalised its detail, Barenboim was able to devote himself to the music’s message rather than its mechanics.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2, often thought to be the poor relation of the five, received a thoroughly engaging performance. Its opening movement can seem discursive but in Barenboim’s hands its potential longueurs were more than offset by precisely judged dynamics and an almost tangible sense of a story well told. Consequently instead of a series of stylised musical gestures, one had the sense of a constantly evolving organic whole, of being drawn into a musical journey. In the Adagio, taken very broadly, it would be possible to argue that the pudding was slightly over-egged but there was no doubting that very Beethovenian sense of elevation and concentration. There was some notably fine oboe-playing. The exuberant madcap finale scampered to its conclusion like an unpredictably boisterous puppy bumbling along at one’s heels.

Give or take one additional double bass Barenboim retained more or less the same slimmed-down forces for the Fourth Piano Concerto with which the programme concluded. This was a more fitful affair. There were many fine touches – for example the subtlety with which the piano’s opening statement elided into the orchestral ritornellos or the rugged intensity of the slow movement exchanges between piano and strings – but too often the focus lay on the orchestra which performed admirably whereas the solo part became almost a piano obbligato. Part of the problem lies in the fact that this concerto really requires a conductor – a role Barenboim has performed for many great pianists of a previous generation – leaving the pianist free as soloist. In normal circumstances the odd fistful of wrong notes doesn’t matter much, especially if the underlying spirit shines through. However, on this occasion there was too much that had a distinctly ad hoc feel to it, Barenboim winging his way through a piece he knows backwards.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 4 February at 7 p.m.
  • Series completes on 2 February

  • Southbank Centre

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