Royal Festival Hall
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.1 in C major, op.15
Schoenberg – Pelleas und Melisande, op.5
Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor)
Thus began Daniel Barenboim’s latest marathon, almost more of a brisk constitutional by the standard of some of his recent endeavours, though mightily impressive to mere mortals: four concerts over five evenings, comprising the five Beethoven piano concertos and various Schoenberg orchestral works. The first Beethoven concerto was the obvious place to start, and so Barenboim did.
I was a little surprised by the size of the orchestra, generous by ‘authenticke’ standards, but nevertheless a little on the small side for one who so reveres Furtwängler, strings proportioned 10.8.6.4.3. Sonority was far from scrawny, but there were occasions when a greater body might have benefited the sonic upholstery. The opening sound was Mozartian, the Mozart of C major pomp – think the twenty-fifth piano concerto or the Jupiter Symphony – though without any real sense of being scaled down. Occasional piano smudges registered without truly mattering; far more important was Barenboim’s overall structural command, never more so than in the expressive slowing during the exposition’s second group, as ‘necessary’ as one could conceive. There was some beautiful soft playing from piano and orchestra during the development section, presaging a truly serene and slow movement. Here the tempo sounded just right, a perfect setting for Barenboim’s long line, whether in phrase, paragraph, or movement. So often this breaks down in Beethoven’s slow movements, but not here. As soloist, Barenboim employed beautifully judged rubato, evincing a proper sense of robbed time, Chopinesque in its quality. His trills demonstrated beyond doubt that the importance of this device is anything but restricted to late Beethoven, whilst the Harmoniemusik emanating from the Staatskapelle Berlin’s woodwind section proved a truly Mozartian joy. What a pleasure, moreover, it was to hear a true slow movement, unhurried and in harmonious proportion with the music framing it. What should come naturally seems to elude most modern Beethoven conductors. Eventually, and rightly, Barenboim punctured a barrage of coughing to open the rondo. This proved lively, bullish even, the woodwind again evoking an updated sense of the outdoor serenade. Crucial were an infallible sense of rhythmic alertness and a clear command of Beethoven’s structure. If the concerto as a whole did not quite ignite as sometimes it has done for Barenboim, this remained an estimable account.
Barenboim certainly did not stint upon the strings in Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, where they were at least double in number compared with the Beethoven. We were plunged in medias res, in what began and continued as a highly dramatic account of Schoenberg’s early tone poem. Perhaps the opening was a little too hasty, though one might equally argue that the impetuosity heard was programmatically suggestive of the eponymous lovers. One could certainly not deny the dramatic thread of Barenboim’s interpretation. Whereas, in December of last year, I had experienced Christian Thielemann’s Berlin Philharmonic performance as revelatory in its Brahmsian quality, this was a reading that remained true to the more typical Straussian, and to a lesser extent post-Wagnerian, conception of the work. Thielemann’s approach I find ultimately the more satisfying, but Barenboim’s terms are perfectly valid and, on those terms, this performance worked very well indeed, gripping in its narration and in its approach to orchestral colour. There were indeed some wonderful Siegfried-Idyll moments to the woodwind contribution, evocations of Till Eulenspiegel too, whilst the massed strings more than once reminded one of Verklärte Nacht, here a true companion piece to Pelleas. A truly magical balance of violin, harps, and flute hinted at the world of Gurrelieder, a work Barenboim surely ought soon to tackle. Lest this all sound unduly focused upon colour, Barenboim emphasised the heightened expressivity of Schoenberg’s language; as Charles Rosen observes in his masterly little book on Schoenberg, the problem for many listeners is too much expression, not too little. The ominous tread that commenced preparations for the end was well judged, though Thielemann’s gravitas may have dug deeper. On the other hand, must one set the one performance off against the other? Surely we are fortunate to have two distinguished Wagnerians prove advocates for Schoenberg. Straussian phantasmagoria, as depicted in Barenboim’s conclusion, can work as well as, if differently from, Schoenberg as ‘Brahms the Progressive’. Moreover, Barenboim’s hints of Parsifal, Act Two especially, proved both musically and dramatically suggestive.