Royal Festival Hall
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat major, op.19
Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.4 in G major, op.58
Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor)
After the disappointment of the previous night’s Emperor Concerto, this concert marked an indisputable return to form for Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. It also marked the advent of a Schoenberg popularly, if erroneously, considered more ‘difficult’ than the composer of Pelleas und Melisande and Verklärte Nacht.
The B-flat concerto, numbered second but actually the first, does not represent Beethoven at his greatest, though it certainly demands inclusion in a cycle such as this. I was a little puzzled by the programme annotator’s claim, ‘Beethoven’s later dismissal of his Second Piano Concerto as “not one of my best compositions” now seems a little harsh.’ Does it? I cannot recall encountering anyone who thought this one of Beethoven’s ‘best compositions’, and should doubtless be baffled if I did. Anyway, even if Barenboim and his orchestra could not convince one of that, they certainly made a good case for the work. With an orchestra the size of that employed for the first piano concerto, Barenboim imparted a post-Mozartian sound and style to this performance, spirited if not entirely without untidiness in the piano part. More important, however, were the structural clarity and sharp melodic profile achieved. Woodwind interjections throughout the concerto proved especially delightful. I did wonder at the wisdom of taking us quite so literally into the world of the late piano sonatas during the first movement cadenza, but better that than playing safe and dull; there was at least a fine sense of the exploratory. The Adagio benefited from especially fine orchestral playing, whether woodwind soloists or pizzicato strings. It was expansive, though never excessively so, and was possessed of a true, honest dignity. Barenboim supplied a magical piano touch and an exquisite, chamber-like blend with his players. From the first statement of the rondo theme, the finale displayed a Haydnesque sense of fun and quirkiness. One could never, though, have doubted the identity of the composer, whose first set of piano Bagatelles often sounded especially close to the mood struck here. (How much more than chips from the master's workbench they are!) Again, Barenboim’s keen sense of Beethoven's tonal architecture was readily apparent, enabling modulations and their meaning truly to register. My only cavil was the occasional over-audible gear change.
I have heard Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin play Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces once before: an outstanding performance at home in Berlin. With the best will in the world, the Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic cannot match that of the Philharmonie: a not insignificant loss in music such as this. Nevertheless, the present performance yielded nothing to that in Berlin. The first piece was frenetic, but never too much; the utmost urgency characterised a gripping account; despite the huge orchestra, much playing was of the utmost delicacy. Colours, such as that of the xylophone, emerged, had their day in the sun, and retreated, whichever way one turned one’s ears. Crucially, here and throughout, a sense of direction was always paramount; with Barenboim, we were in safe hands. The cello solo at the opening of Vergangenes began almost as if a Brahms lullaby, stranded in a post-Mahlerian nightmare, yet we soon discovered that there was a great deal of gentle, consoling music in Schoenberg’s remembrance of things past. His myriad of instrumental possibilities, whether soloistic or in combination, truly set the scene for the Klangfarbenmelodie of Farben. And the beauty of that final chord of the second movement had to be heard to be believed. Dissonance, for Schoenberg, was always a matter of comprehensibility, not beauty. If the melody of colours took centre stage in the third movement, a more musico-dramatic impulse asserted itself for the peripeteia of the fourth. The dramatic moment was seized with relish, the spectre of Vienna (Mahler’s Seventh Symphony?) returning with a vengeance. The final piece showed Schoenberg and Barenboim at their most radically post-Wagnerian: unending melody at every turn, every level. Barenboim truly caught the dialectical nature of Schoenberg’s achievement: subtle and furious, wild and attentive, nightmarish and yet affirmative.
Barenboim employed a slightly larger body of strings for the Fourth Piano Concerto than he had for the Second, reverting to the forces of the Emperor. This was immediately a more alert-sounding reading than I had heard him give in Vienna last year, even if the strings of the Staatskapelle Berlin, for all their virtues, could not quite capture the sweetness of those of the Vienna Philharmonic. I took a little while, though not long, to be persuaded of Barenboim’s interpretative stance here. Initially, I wondered whether his dramatic forthrightness, implying a heroism closer than one generally hears to the Emperor, was really the thing for a concerto generally considered more ruminative. Even Barenboim’s tone sounded close to that expected in the concerto that would follow this. However, as with a similar account of the Violin Concerto a few years ago from Frank Peter Zimmermann, the LSO, and Bernard Haitink, I was entirely won over. This was Beethoven the revolutionary – and this is, after all, middle-period Beethoven. The first movement was relatively swift but, more important, convincingly flexible. Woodwind again proved delectable. There were some welcome surprises in the cadenza, which here, following the upsets of the Fifth, showed Barenboim in complete command of his instrument. Unfortunately, he had an equally commanding bronchial partner for a significant stretch of time.
The Furies of the slow movement were unusually angry in a highly rhetorical, almost pictorial account, which nevertheless always placed musical values first: a valuable lesson, not that it will be learned, for Barenboim’s ‘period’ foes. The contrast with the Classical serenity of the piano could hardly have been greater, or more dramatically telling. Part of the secret of success of this performance was surely that Barenboim was better able to conduct the orchestra than he had been in the Emperor, which will always be a struggle when directed from the keyboard. For many, the Fourth would be a bridge too far to play and to conduct, but not for him. The transition to the finale was exquisitely handled, with an unerring sense of rightness, born of deep understanding of where Beethoven is heading and why. The high spirits of what was to follow were all the better for having been so hard won during the mysteries of the Adagio. Now the full orchestral sound confirmed why, for those in the know, this ranks as one of Germany’s greatest orchestras. Again, the movement was more of a Romantic battle between soloist and orchestra than is generally the case, but the strategy paid off handsomely, with muscular responses on both sides. Not that there lacked moments of delicacy and beauty: that wonderful passage when the violas take pride of place, for instance. Once again, Barenboim’s structural command permitted Beethoven’s modulations to register with their full meaning, never more so than in the preparations for the cadenza. The final bars were thunderously exciting. This was fully worthy of a standing ovation.