Royal Festival Hall
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor, KV 491
Bruckner – Symphony no.7 in E major
Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor)
It was only a week ago that I heard Daniel Barenboim conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin in Lulu, or rather excerpts therefrom, at the Schillertheater, the Berlin State Opera’s temporary home. Now orchestra and conductor (pianist, too) embark upon a three-concert series in London, comprising two Mozart concertos and the three last Bruckner symphonies. I wish that the wearisomely modish, frankly meaningless, ‘project’ – this is ‘The Bruckner Project’ and we had a ‘Pollini Project’ last year – might forever be banished; for the moment, let us simply put it to one side.
To my ears, Mozart’s C minor piano concerto took a little time to settle. I say, ‘to my ears’, since I think it was as much a matter of the Royal Festival Hall acoustic from the back of the rear stalls as the performance itself, indeed maybe more so, the overhanging balcony being something of a menace in that respect. The size of the hall, too, means that forces such as Barenboim elected to employ can sound a little on the small side, especially before one’s ears adjust; a chamber orchestra of ten first violins and other strings proportionately is certainly not what Barenboim’s hero, Furtwängler, would have employed. Be that as it may, and I think that there was a degree of the Staatskapelle Berlin as well as my ears adjusting to the hall, Barenboim’s performance, if falling a little short of what we know of his Mozart from recordings, remained for the most part distinguished, above all by a command of line of which Furtwängler would surely have approved. The first movement benefited from some beautifully hushed piano playing, which had even serial coughers abate their personal contributions, although there were a few smudged passages, unfortunately including the opening piano statement. If the slow movement did not dawdle, nor did it sound at all rushed, as do so many contemporary readings; instead, it unfolded in apparent, if deceptive simplicity. The Staatskapelle’s woodwind, not least its principal flute, provided balm to the aural soul, as Mozart’s woodwind must, though there was some oddly marcato playing from the oboist; it seemed to be an interpretative decision, but I was not convinced, especially when phrases emerged with less than the requisite degree of moulding. In the finale, Barenboim, again despite odd slips, was very much in his element. He brought his small orchestra to near-Beethovenian – though the distinction between Mozart and Beethoven remained – strength of purpose, and clearly relished the chromaticism that points not only to Wagner but even to Schoenberg. (The same, of course, could be said of the first movement.) Fresh from what remained of Lulu after Andrea Breth’s butchering, Mozart’s own Berg-like labyrinth could hardly fail to appeal. Both cadenzas were, I think, recalling from recordings, Barenboim’s own, and worked extremely well in performance. A mobile telephone contribution did little, however, to enhance appreciation.
Bruckner continues, as the cliché has it, to divide opinion. For some, his symphonies represent a supreme spiritual statement; for others, the formal problems and long-windedness present an insuperable barrier. I have never really had a problem with the final three symphonies, though I cannot say that I find the Seventh’s structure entirely convincing; with the earlier works, more often than not, I find dead ends and redundant repetition. ‘Deformations’ of sonata form do not necessarily always mean to me here what the analysts take them to be. The odd thing about this performance from Barenboim was that I became more dissatisfied with the form of the Seventh than I previously recall. Was he laying bare its structure, problems and all? That would be one explanation, but, despite many very positive aspects to the performance, I think it was at least sometimes more a matter of failing, if only slightly, to pursue a convincing, certain path, of the line present in the Mozart concerto fading away a little. Not that this was Bruckner pulled around, but the first movement, whatever the truths of the clock, often sounded a little rushed, drama a touch applied rather than inherent. I was charmed, though, by the graceful Schubertian quality with which Barenboim at his best swept the music along. Yet, if this account stood worlds away from the majesty, the almost glacial implacability of Karajan’s late Vienna Philharmonic recording, the guiding thread and Wagnerian musico-dramatic purpose of Furtwängler also ultimately proved elusive. Moreover, despite a rich string tone that was for the most part ideally involving, there were times when the violins sounded tired. The slow movement, by contrast, was well paced throughout. I was surprised, however, by some surprisingly thin-sounding brass, though if mentioning that failing, I must note a truly blessed contribution from the Wagner tubas, fresh from Neidhöhle. The scherzo was light enough on its feet, though never did I hear the awe-struck apocalyptic quality both Furtwängler and Karajan in their different ways, not to mention a few other conductors, would impart to its progress. As for the finale, its material, and Bruckner’s way with it, seem as inappropriate to the rest of the symphony as they always have done to me. A great performance can come close to convincing me otherwise; a very good performance, alas, does not.