Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim – Beethoven & Schoenberg (4)

Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
An illustrated talk – Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra
Variations for Orchestra, Op.31

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Francesco Burns

Reviewed: 2 February, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

While both works in this final concert of Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven/Schoenberg series are examples of the composers looking to the future, they also demonstrate the respect both held for tradition.

Daniel Barenboim. Photograph: ©Kevin RogersBeethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3, written just a year before the revolutionary ‘Eroica’ Symphony, is poised at the end of the Classical and beginning of the Romantic eras. Its character is heroic and at times passionate, hinting at the heightened expressivity that would develop in Beethoven’s music. The Staatskapelle Berlin players and Barenboim know one another well, both as musicians and people; there is a mutual respect. Yet there were late entries, and at times ensemble was out of sync, but Barenboim’s Beethoven is, and long has been, a rough-around-the-edges affair, and is all the better for it. He is accused of not possessing enough restraint in this repertoire, but he struck a satisfying balance throughout the work – heroic gestures were appropriately grand, but curtailed and dignified enough as to avoid being grandiose.

As for the piano-playing, well, this was Beethoven perhaps as temperamentally accurate as it can be. Barenboim’s rough-and-ready approach is wholly appropriate in the heroic works, his rhapsodic playing always so natural and unaffected (the first movement cadenza – Beethoven’s own – was evidence of this). He is the master of the extreme pianissimo, which he so ingeniously employs not only to command attention, but to create moments of unbearable tension. There are times in this work when a separate conductor is needed to keep it all together, but the performance as a whole had a sense of an improvisatory yet organic quality, the result of which was wholly satisfying.

A marvellous change to the usual concert structure was an “illustrated talk” on Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra, Barenboim discussing the work with the Staatskapelle musicians on hand to provide examples. For those not familiar with the work, this would have been very helpful indeed. Barenboim demonstrated the main theme many times and subsequently in its many guises. There were also examples of foreground/background textural aspects and how to detect the theme at certain points.

As for the performance proper, it delivered on all counts: structure; colour; exactitude. At times it really is difficult to identify the theme, and the RFH acoustic did it no favours at all. Barenboim resisted highlighting the thematic material by exaggerating certain textural balances, but instead followed Schoenberg’s dynamic markings totally faithfully (conducting from memory), which let the natural colour take care of itself – enhanced by some haunting playing from leader Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf, and especially from trombonist Curt Lommatzsch in ghost-like statements of the BACH theme. The finale was a very exciting affair.

One of the aims of this residency was to bring Schoenberg closer to his rightful place in the concert repertoire; this performance of Variations for Orchestra showed what an absolutely vital and thrilling piece Schoenberg composed. As Glenn Gould wrote: “Schoenberg was not a great composer because he used the twelve-tone system, but rather the twelve-tone system was singularly lucky to have been exploited by a man of Schoenberg’s genius.”

There was an encore – the charmingly riotous Thunder and Lightning Polka by Johann Strauss II.

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