Saturday, 7 December 2019

Staatskapelle Berlin/Schiff - Bach, 6 December 2019


Pierre Boulez Saal

Orchestral Suite no.2 in B minor, BWV 1067
Piano Concerto no.3 in D major, BWV 1054
Orchestral Suite no.3 in D major, BWV 1068
Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, BWV 1052

Claudia Stein (flute)
Staatskapelle Berlin
András Schiff (piano, conductor)


Celebrating its 450th anniversary next year, the Staatskapelle Berlin traces its proud history long before Bach: be that its ‘own’, Carl Philipp Emanuel, his father, Johann Sebastian—‘Gentlemen, old Bach is here!’—or indeed any family member whom we know as a composer. It is a sad state of affairs to report that, on the similar brink of another anniversary, the 70th of the great Bach year of 1950, in whose wake Theodor Adorno wrote his coruscating denunciation of authenticist ideology, we still live so much in its baleful shadow that a concert from this ancient orchestra in which it performs only relatively ‘alte Musik’ should remain so remarkable a thing. Whatever reservations I may have felt, then, concerning András Schiff’s direction of this wonderful orchestra—a few, alongside many positive observations—I remain grateful indeed for the experience, for the reminder that it is still just about possible to hear Bach played by a modern orchestra without compelling its players to sound like an end-of-pier band, or indeed simply to hear Bach from a modern orchestra at all. To see Daniel Barenboim in the Pierre Boulez Saal audience, moreover, was encouraging; dare we hope for some more Bach from him, whether as pianist, conductor, or both?


For the B minor Orchestral Suite, with Claudia Stein as the excellent flute soloist, Schiff, conducting rather than direction from the keyboard, called on a very small string orchestra (4.4.3.2.1) plus harpsichord (Schaghajegh Nosrati). The opening to the Overture, like its counterpart in the D major Suite later on, sounded clipped and inhibited. The main body of the movement came as a significant relief: not only a sensible tempo, so rare nowadays in this music, but with no attempt to inflict weird, egotistical mannerisms upon it. Rhythms were nicely sprung. Crucially, that sense of line strangely lacking earlier on was present throughout. It was initially not clear to me that Schiff’s hand-waving had much bearing on the excellent playing, other than setting the parameters within which it would operate, but entries were well pointed, so perhaps it did after all. The Rondeau and Sarabande proved graceful, without some effete, allegedly French idea of ‘grace’ becoming an end in itself. Once again, the lack of breakneck, attention-seeking tempo was greatly appreciated, also enabling the first Bourrée to come as a vigorous contrast that yet did not neglect its fundamental musical worth. The second, played only by soloists and with darker tone, offered a more relaxed foil. The martial qualities of Polonaise rhythm were communicated, yet again without ‘style’ being taken for idea. Stein’s playing in particular highlighted rhythm in revealing, generative fashion. A further solo foil, this time from flute and continuo, proved idiomatically and emotionally refreshing in the Double. A courtly Menuett led to a Badinerie that was swift without taking speed to fashionable excess, Stein’s agile musicianship matched by a highly responsive orchestra.


Moving to the relative major, a slightly augmented string section (6.6.4.3.2) accompanied Schiff in the D major Concerto, BWV 1054, directed—without harpsichord—from the piano. The first movement’s opening was bright and clear. Just when I was longing for greater variegation of piano tone, Schiff offered some, though I could not help but wish we had heard a little more in that respect. Such is his way, however, as his refusal to use the sustaining pedal; we should all be wary of claims that there is only one way. Light piano ornamentation proved stylish and did not obscure the fundamentals. An eminently musical account of the slow movement permitted depth to come from the notes, as opposed to being some thing applied to them. Command of the long line was here crucial—and unfailing. Some may well have found Schiff’s tempo for the final movement too slow; it is, after all, marked ‘Presto’. For me, his relatively unhurried approach had much to be said for it, permitting the music to speak, with no fashionable sense of harrying it.


The larger string band was retained for the second half, joined of course by two oboes, three trumpets, kettledrums, and harpsichord for the D major Orchestral Suite, not least in the main body of the first movement. It was taken fast, but far from unreasonably so: music and players could take it. What cultivated string-playing we heard, trumpets in particular enhancing the sense of the festal. If my ears took a minute or so to adjust to a more ‘period’ sound for the kettledrums, I soon ditched my prejudice in the light of such intelligent, rhetorically and harmonically expressive playing from Stephan Möller. Apparent determination to wrest the ‘Air’ from ‘on the G string fame’ left it in a curious state: skated over, with most uncharacteristic vibrato-lite playing. Nosrati’s continuo playing, however, proved a delight. Following a pair of Gavottes that were lively and vigorous, if somewhat short-breathed, the Bourrée and Gigue sounded a little too much as if translated from the keyboard, fine orchestral playing notwithstanding.


The D minor Concerto, BWV 1052, opened in forthright fashion, Schiff’s tempo choice spot on. (Not that there is a ‘correct’ answer here, but rather that it should work within the context of the performance—which it did.) There was energy enough, but also space. I may have wished it to breathe more at times; again, however, it would be folly to insist upon one’s own aesthetic being applied to everything, for on its own terms, this worked well. A greater problem for me was a lack—at least on certain occasions—of piano legato and a certain heavy-handedness which may have led some to doubt the role of a Steinway in this music. The slow movement, similarly to the Suite’s Air, seemed haunted by a fear of ‘romanticising’; what we heard instead sounded oddly unengaged, Schiff’s piano tone often unforgiving. The finale, however, came off much better: tempo, clarity, and dynamism all just right. Most important of all, it possessed a sense of grandeur such as Bach demands and yet all too rarely receives. Old Bach, it felt, was truly here: not in Potsdam, still less in Leipzig, but in Berlin.



Friday, 6 December 2019

Kampe/BPO/Thielemann - Wagner and Strauss, 5 December 2019


Philharmonie

Wagner: Lohengrin: Prelude to Act I
Strauss: Sonatina for sixteen wind instruments in F major, WoO 135, ‘Aus der Werkstatt eines Invaliden’
Strauss: Drei Hymnen, op.71
Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier: Suite, op.59

Anja Kampe (soprano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Christian Thielemann (conductor). 


First came an unscheduled tribute to Mariss Jansons: the first-act Prelude to Lohengrin. In Jansons’s honour, the Berlin Philharmonic offered a glowing, performance of such translucency that even Wagner, at the height of his Young Hegelianism, might have accepted ‘transcendent’ as description in this case. Certainly that pulsating shimmer from the Berlin violins more than hinted at a Grail rendered immanent. Only toward the close did a little excessive moulding from Christian Thielemann suggest the presence of ego. Otherwise, all was much, I fancied, as Jansons might have dreamed of.


A rare opportunity to hear Strauss’s late Sonatina ‘Aus der Werkstatt eines Invaliden’ followed: so rare, indeed, that this was the first Berlin Philharmonic performance. For much of the opening and closing movements, alas, I could not help but wish that the excellent players—just think of those wind soloists—had played without a conductor, Thielemann seemingly insistent on making a meal of, even becoming bogged down in, phrases and paragraphs that need to sparkle as a knowingly late tribute to Mozart: Sekt rather than champagne, yet the very best Sekt. That said, he and they from the outset conjured to perfection a post-Capriccio harmonic soundworld. Moreover, the first movement’s climax and retreat therefrom proved wholly convincing. The central ‘Romanze und Menuett’ worked better overall, enabling one to take joy in sheer beauty of sound—how to choose between the likes of Emmanuel Pahud, Albrecht Mayer, Andreas Ottensamer, Stefan Dohr, Daniele Damiano, et al.?—without losing sight of wood for trees. If it sounded as conducted chamber music, that is arguably the point. If direction was not always clear during the finale, it became less effortful as time went on. There was, in any case, no doubting the outstanding quality of the playing.


Nor was there in the rest of the concert, concerning which I had no reservations whatsoever. These were outstanding performances in every respect, Thielemann, Anja Kampe, and this magnificent orchestra truly in their Straussian element. Why the three op.71 Hölderlin settings are so rarely performed, I have no idea. This was the first time I had heard them in concert, knowing them entirely from a radiant recording by this orchestra (which gave the 1921 premiere), Karita Mattila, and Claudio Abbado. They are hymns as much to Strauss’s absolute mastery of craft as to love and Heimat. It is difficult to imagine this performance, as rich in orchestral detail as it was revealing of form and line, being bettered any time soon. The opening ‘Hymn an der Liebe’ proved equally memorable for Kampe’s vividly communicative verbal presence and for the detail and direction of orchestral interludes, that after the third stanza sounding as a condensed passage from the Alpine Symphony or Die Frau ohne Schatten. Riding the crest of Strauss’s orchestral waves held no fear for Kampe and surely would not have done with less variegated ‘accompaniment’, yet Thielemann’s understanding of and consideration for the voice proved just as crucial. And yes, the pay-off was ultimately hymnal. ‘Rückkehr in die Heimat’, spun like a magic tapestry, and the similarly phantasmagorical delights of ‘Die Liebe’ followed, the latter resulting in a musico-verbal transformation that would surely have satisfied Hugo von Hofmannsthal himself. Strauss may deny transcendence, yet, with his ability to transfigurate, he scarcely needs to.


And so we moved to the familiar if still, in provenance, slightly mysterious 1944 Rosenkavalier suite. In a dashing, frankly coital Prelude, Thielemann appeared to be making up for lost time. Hand on heart, I have never heard this music better played, be it in Vienna, Dresden, or anywhere else. Here, Thielemann could play the orchestra as his instrument, as Strauss’s too, in the very best way. Shaping and detail emerged as one. Lightly (rightly) worn dignity and nobility lay at its heart: deeply moving. Ochs’s torment proved vivid in materialist fashion, as grotesque as anything in Ein Heldenleben, orchestra ‘speaking’ in absence of word and gesture. His waltz and others were played with evident love; in return, they effortlessly charmed us. A theatrical Luftpause before the Trio music could readily be forgiven. Likewise the very, very slow tempo of a section built with such mastery as to banish any slight lingering doubt. At the last hurrah, just as before curtain rise, orchestra, conductor, and composer sounded as one. Wonderful!



Salome, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 4 December 2019



Images: Monika Rittershaus
Oscar Wilde (Christian Natter), Salome (Aušrine Stundytė)

Herod – Vincent Wolfsteiner
Herodias – Marina Prudenskaya
Salome – Aušrine Stundytė
Jochanaan – Thomas J. Mayer
Narraboth – Peter Sonn
Herodias’s Page – Annika Schlicht
Jews – Ziad Nehme, Michael Smallwood, Matthew Peña, Andrés Moreno Garcia, David Oštrek
Nazarenes – Adam Kutny, Ulf Dirk Mädler
Soldiers – Arttu Kataja, Erik Rosenius
A Cappadocian – David Oštrek
A Slave – Ireene Ollino
Oscar Wilde – Christian Natter
Guards – Ernesto Amico, Allen Boxer, Nikos Fragkou, Jonathan Heck, Maximilian Reisinger, Tom-Veit Weber

Hans Neuenfels (director)
Philipp Lossau (assistant director)
Reinhard von der Thannen (designs)
Kathrin Hauer (assistant stage designer)
Sommer Ulrickson (choreography)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Henry Arnold (dramaturgy)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Thomas Guggeis (conductor)


Manipulation lies at the heart of Richard Strauss’s art. One might argue that it lies at the heart of all art; there would be a strong case to be made for that. However, there is something particular about Straussian manipulation. In some ways not dissimilar to that of Puccini—both composers are expert at pressing particular emotional buttons and having many listeners enjoy such manipulation in full knowledge that they are being manipulated—it differs in the extraordinary level of technical sophistication and, often if not always, in the nested levels of knowing reflexion-in-contrivance. Artifice is good, then: perhaps, after Nietzsche, more in opposition to ‘bad’ than to ‘evil’. For Strauss, as Salome makes abundantly clear, is no more a Christian, perhaps even less willing to admit of metaphysical transcendence, than Nietzsche, of whom he had been an avid and discerning reader.


Salome and Wilde
Manipulation lies at the heart of Salome too; it lies also at the heart of Hans Neuenfels’s production, which, having seen when new last year, I was keen to see again. What I think came across still more strongly than last time—this may just have been me—was the central character’s awakening to that manipulation and, concomitantly, to her ability to manipulate. Such was a signal achievement for Aušrine Stundytė, showing herself every inch a singing actress, throwing everything into a performance that, rightly, was not always pretty, not always to be kept within bounds, very much a force of nature: trying, testing, both winning and losing. Working with Neuenfels’s staging—for which we should also understand Reinhard von der Thannen’s striking designs, Sommer Ulrickson’s choreography, and Henry Arnold’s thoughtful and provocative dramaturgy—we saw and heard from Stundytė a Salome led to self-discovery and ultimately to tragedy not only by Strauss but verbally and visibly by Oscar Wilde himself.


The latter’s advent, first foretold in neon lights (‘Wilde is coming’) and then portrayed, offered intriguing counterpoint to Jochanaan’s foretelling of another leader (and, if you like, divine manipulator)—and was once more acted and danced in a mesmerising fashion perhaps more readily associated with Salome herself by Christian Natter. And is not the Christ of whom this John the Baptist speaks his and his alone, a product of the imagination and repressed desires of a religious fanatic, incarcerated within—visible, throughout—phallic cistern. Was not Christianity always thus: recall Nietzsche’s ‘there was only one Christian and he died on the Cross’. Other religions are, true enough to the opera, treated no more favourably. Their claims, voiced exclusively by men, seem no more plausible and, perhaps more to the point, no more relevant to the story unfolding and to human flourishing beyond that particular story, than a horoscope. Strauss’s failure to conjure up music of more than empty ‘gravity’ for references to Christ tell their own story. Who manipulates whom, and to what end?




Salome looks elsewhere, to those who might actually know her: first, yes, to Jochanaan, but ultimately, more productively, to Wilde—and thus to art, to a game that is aesthetic as much as it is sado-masochistic. The two can hardly be distinguished, and why would one try? Weimar-expressionist cabaret beckons from Wildean decadence; Wilde learns from Strauss and Salome too, ultimately adopting a leather harness in her/his/their service. Such blurring of pronouns may be read in various ways—and probably should. In art, perhaps, the mightier the plagiarism, the mightier the achievement. When Jochanaan and the eunuch Wilde seem partially liberated by adopting the corset and bustle that had once constricted the now queerer, pant-suited Princess Salome, who manipulates whom? And yet, gender as play, as game, remains a deadly one. Salome dies; Salome is killed. Patriarchy—an imperialist, orientalist patriarchy at that—wins to fight another day, to slay another woman, another queer voice and body too. Does it not always? And yet, her smashing of one—only one, yet nevertheless one—of  the Jochanaan busts, an aesthetic representations with which Wilde has incited her, remains: as powerful a moment onstage as that of her murder at the command of a tyrant-abuser.

Wilde and Jochanaan (Thomas J. Mayer)



Herod’s upholding of patriarchal norms, decadent, hypocritical subversion of them notwithstanding, was expertly conveyed in a wheedling, beyond-Mime performance from Vincent Wolfsteiner. Marina Prudenskaya’s Herodias, haughty, contemptuous, impressively controlled in her channelling of sex and gender alike, proved the perfect foil—or, better, manipulator. Thomas J. Mayer likewise offered, in post-Wagnerian marriage of word, tone, and gesture, a Jochanaan for this production, no hint—costume aside—of the ready-to-wear. Peter Sonn proved a worthy successor to Nikolai Schukoff as Narraboth. At times heart-breakingly beautiful of tone, his longing was as aesthetically exquisite as it was therefore doomed. All smaller roles were very well taken indeed, yet also formed part of a greater whole. If I single out Adam Kutny’s First Nazarene and Annika Schlicht’s Page as having made the greatest impression, that is doubtless little more than a highly merited personal reaction.


Conducting the outstanding Staatskapelle Berlin, then as now, was Thomas Guggeis. Then he made headlines by standing in at short notice for Christoph von Dohnányi. Now the field was his own and it sounded as much. From this bubbling, post-Wagnerian cauldron, anything might spill, unless someone could tame it; the battle was vividly, meaningfully rare, rather than effortlessly aestheticised after, say, Karajan.  This was not a tone-poem with words; or was it? Unleashing the fabled darkness of this orchestra’s tone to ends in keeping with and in relationship to the vision on stage, yet in no sense constricted by them, Guggeis showed, as in his recent Katya Kabanova here, a keen ear for harmony, line, and orchestral musicodramatic eloquence. Crucially, he commanded the authority to have them speak in the theatre, in the dramatic here-and-now. This is not Elektra; it is not so single-minded, so monomaniacal. There are sideways glances; aesthetic contemplation shading into sexual frustration, if rarely fulfilment; hints at alternative futures; and so on. Such were rendered dramatically—often vividly— immanent, without throwing us from Strauss and Wilde’s central trail. Or so it seemed, for in the absence of any greater metaphysical authority, how could we know?  Aesthetically the answer seemed clear, yet how could it not? Who, then, had manipulated whom?





Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Barenboims and Soltani - Beethoven piano trios (2), 2 December 2019

Pierre Boulez Saal

Concert images: Monika Rittershaus

Variations on ‘Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu’ for piano trio in G major, op.121a
Piano Trio in E-flat major, op.70 no.2
Piano Trio in B-flat major, op.97, ‘Archduke’

Michael Barenboim (violin)
Kian Soltani (cello)
Daniel Barenboim (piano)





This, the second instalment of Beethoven piano trios from Michael and Daniel Barenboim and Kian Soltani brought almost as much joy as the first. If compelled to choose between the two, I should have opted for the previous afternoon’s performances. Here, if only by comparison, there were a few minor instances in which violinist and pianist seemed to lack the final ounce of commitment we head heard previously, though such was never the case from the outstanding Soltani on cello. Fortunately, there was no compulsion to choose; instead, I learned much from hearing these works programmed and performed as they were.


The performance of the opening ‘Kakadu’ Variations made as strong a case for this strange work as I have heard, immediately announcing that this was once more to be the truest of chamber music, listening, encouraging, and responding as equals. Daniel Barenboim as pianist may have been the biggest ‘name’, yet he was here very much a colleague. The introduction, so oddly out of kilter with the rest of the work, was spacious, mysterious, expressive without exaggeration of an often surprising degree of chromaticism. The advent of the theme, taken from Wenzel Müller’s opera, Die Schwestern von Prag, made me smile—though that did not seem to be the general audience response. We heard a lovely, characterful parade of variations, all well pointed, and played with all the care and attention that would have been lavished on more ‘serious’ music. I especially loved the syncopated exchange between Michael Barenboim and Soltani in the sixth variation and the insouciant two-part writing, again between violin and cello, in the seventh. Beneath and surrounding that lay Daniel Barenboim’s lifetime’s experience not only in playing and conducting Beethoven, but in thinking and rethinking about this music.




The introduction to the op.70 no.2 Trio spoke with all the depth and mastery of maturity: Beethoven’s, yes, but surely these musicians’ too. What depth there was in particular to the cello tone, Soltani as previously mentioned on very top form throughout. Both here and elsewhere, I greatly appreciated the players relishing rather than in any sense toning down the music’s difficulty. Those possessing performatively jaded palates may complain about the composer’s prominence in concert programming; if they truly listened, we should hear no more silly objections. For here was classicism liquefying before the ears and fingers, the forms Beethoven had inherited both negated and preserved: aufgehoben, to use that indispensable, untranslatable German term. (‘Sublated’ comes closest, I suppose, yet that seems better suited to philosophy than music, insofar as the two may be disentangled.) The Wagnerian melos of the first movement’s development section could hardly be faulted—and why should anyone try? If the second movement opened in strangely casual fashion—perhaps a longer break between movements would have been better?—the rest of the movement emerged in charming, sophisticated, yet never too sophisticated fashion. Soltani’s lute-like pizzicato proved an especial joy. Sterner passages were equally well handled, fine attention paid by all to their specific demands. As ever, there was no hint of one size fitting all. The minuet sang with a sunny integrity typical of Beethoven in this key (A-flat major, rather than the ‘expected’ E-flat). Its C major trio’s strange Romanticism seemed, quite rightly, more than a little suggestive of Mendelssohn. Returning to the tonic, E-flat, for the finale, that return was felt, not merely voiced, in a spirited, ebullient, yet variegated performance. If occasionally I felt, especially earlier on, that it could have been more clearly directed toward its goal, perhaps that was just me. In any case, there was a great deal to absorb and, once again, no attempt to conceal the work’s difficulties.




All good things must come to an end, and what better way to do so than with the ‘Archduke’ Trio? The opening of the first movement can readily sound too emphatic. Not here, Daniel Barenboim’s relaxed wisdom just the thing as gateway to the work as a whole. There was, I think, greater tempo variation here than previously, yet never for its own sake and always rewardingly so. A particular type of middle-period Beethoven melodic writing and its implications were captured to a tee in the development, Soltani once more noteworthy in his combination of the moving and commanding. Sheer ‘naturalness’ of return to the tonic was something to be relished; so too, was ongoing further development to the close. Throughout, detail and a sense of whole were held in fine, productive balance. The scherzo sang and danced delightfully; its trio’s counterpoint proved darkly even disconcertingly mysterious, piano outbursts hinting intriguingly at Chopin. The slow movement’s ‘second simplicity’ emerged in a reading of rapt sublimity. I could have done without snoring from the row behind; such, I suppose, is part of life’s rich tapestry. What a world, in any case, we had travelled from the variations with which the concert had begun. Exalted good humour characterised the finale, both light and profound as required, often in simultaneity.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Barenboims and Soltani - Beethoven piano trios (1), 1 December 2019


Pierre Boulez Saal

Piano Trio in E-flat major, op.1 no.1
Piano Trio in C minor, op.1 no.3
Piano Trio in G major, op.1 no.2
Piano Trio in D major, op.70 no.1, ‘Ghost’

Michael Barenboim (violin)
Kian Soltani (cello)
Daniel Barenboim (piano)




Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal has already seen—and heard—a few portents of next year’s Beethoven anniversary. In September, the first concert of the 2019-20 season opened with Beethoven’s Horn Sonata, op.17. With Advent Sunday, the festivities began in earnest: the first of two concerts in which the six piano trios (plus the ‘Kakadu’ Variations) are performed by Michael Barenboim, Kian Soltani, and Daniel Barenboim. If subsequent events turn out to compare well with this, we shall be in for a special year indeed. Where better to start, to bring light to the long nights of a Berlin winter, than with Beethoven’s official opus 1? Before that, however, Daniel Barenboim requested—and naturally received—a minute’s silence for Mariss Jansons, whose death had been announced but a few hours earlier: ‘ein ganz grosser Musiker und ein wunderbarer Mensch’. Quite—and very much in keeping with the humanism to be celebrated throughout the coming year.


The E-flat Trio, first of the three Beethoven composed for Prince Karl Lichnowsky, opened in bright, alert, reflectively post-Mozartian fashion: very much an opening not just to the first movement, not just to the work, not just to the set and concert, but to the œuvre and year ahead. It was clear from the very outset that this was to be chamber-music playing of the greatest distinction; much could be garnered even just from watching the players listen, their give-and-take. Likewise from the difference heard in the first-movement exposition ‘repeat’: nothing of the sort, of course, yet nor was it different for the sake of it. Much the same might be said for the return to the tonic in the recapitulation and its necessary novelty to remain and conclude in that key: touchingly so, indeed. Harmony, as in all Beethoven performances worthy of the name, underlay events ‘above’; there was no need to draw attention to the fact, for it simply—or not so simply—‘was’. The greatest Western music from the years leading up to 1800—think, for instance, of Haydn’s London Symphonies and The Creation—conveys a sense of a Newtonian musical universe there to be mapped, explored, wondered at; so did this performance.


Beethoven’s early slow movements are no easy thing to bring off. It should doubtless come as little surprise that a performance led, if only as first among equals, by Daniel Barenboim should succeed in that, fulfilling the ‘Adagio cantabile’s stylistic and formal demands to perfection, but it is still worth acclaiming. Time and space, simplicity and ornament: all sounded and felt as they ‘should’. And how those modulations were handled! Different characters of each instrument, each instrumentalist registered—Michael Barenboim’s wordless song and Kian Soltani’s suave profundity as much as Barenboim père’s incontrovertible identification with the music ‘itself’—yet equally came together as voices of a single humanity. A buoyant scherzo brought fine balance between detail and formal dynamism, permitting motivic development freely to speak, to lead. Its trio followed, voiced with intimacy on a coiled (harmonic) spring, the trio’s reprise rightly coming—however much one ‘knew’—as a surprise. Daniel Barenboim clearly knew and communicated what was at stake in the finale’s opening slurred leaps of a tenth; the fuse was gently, confidently lit. Full of delightful and, later, truly moving surprises, later imitated and developed by Michael Barenboim, the twists and turns of this movement managed to recall, intensify, and sublimate so much of what we had heard previously, while remaining true to the particular form and function of this, the closing movement. Wonderful!


The third of the Lichnowsky trios followed, its C minor home tonality already revealed to be moving away from Mozart—yet with undoubted reference, for instance to the Piano Sonata, KV 457, and with Mozartian melodic writing as a counterweight—toward something else, something more Beethovenian, for want of a better word. How much greater emotional weight there was to be heard on the reprise of the introduction, not least in Michael Barenboim’s rich-toned violin phrase; likewise the reprise, insofar as we may call it that, of the exposition as a whole. For it sounded rather as if already a first development, preparing the way for second and, in the recapitulation, third developments to come. The latter sounded fuller of surprises than ever—‘simply’ by playing the notes and everything between and surrounding them. Tragic vehemence in the coda, Neapolitan harmony and all, proved similarly Janus-faced. Truths were spoken, or rather sung, with perfect balance between the aristocratic and popular in the second movement variations. Such a balance, one felt, was still just about possible; Haydn was after all still very much alive, even if Mozart were not, at least in a merely corporeal sense. The third variation’s concerto-like piano, set against pizzicato, beautifully judged violin and cello, had one on the edge of one’s seat—in a good way. Soltani’s tragic, seria voice in its successor proved ineffably effecting. Everything, one felt, was there, was here. The complex neoclassicism—yes, already—of the minuet was apparent: meaningful, yet never laboured. Space—just enough, nothing excessive—was afforded for its trio to relax and to develop. Then the C minor tragic daemon could truly be unleashed for Beethoven’s finale, quite without detriment to lovable glances sideways and indeed backwards to a vanishing eighteenth century. The ‘Pathétique’ Sonata was just around the corner, yet rightly not quite with us either. That this was Beethoven, however, no one could have any doubt.


Following the interval, we heard op.1 no.2, the closest of the three to Haydn—and so it sounded, not least in the first movement introduction, whose transition to the exposition proper was revealingly likened by Denis Matthews to that of the ‘Oxford’ Symphony. We were invited to listen, both to the work’s particularity and to its kinship, harmonic and motivic development coming together to delineate a path both familiar and unique. In the slow movement, a wordless vocal ensemble vouchsafed us truths that words could never tell. Hopeless Romanticism? Perhaps, yet if so, so what? Daniel Barenboim’s piano told of something so ineffably sublime that already the way seemed pointed towards the composer’s late works. The scherzo’s keen sense of Affekt and of line prepared the way for a trio that justly rejuvenated rather than relaxed. In Beethoven, no one size fits all. Haydn to the nth degree characterised the finale’s moto perpetuo, the simplest musical—tonal-musical—building blocks, scales, diatonic triads, and so on, imbued with the freshness of discovery.


For the final work on the programme, we moved to middle-period Beethoven, to the so-called ‘Ghost’ Trio, op.70 no.1. Striking in context was the similarity of means in its first movement to the finale of the preceding work. Full maturity of voice, however, proved just as striking in contrast, rendering performance as much as reception a very different experience. It was not just that one heard greater ‘Romanticism’, though one did, but the combination of broader canvas and—shockingly—greater concision, of contrapuntal and motivic intensity and, at times, density of texture: on the page, yes, but flying off it too. As Beethoven took his leave from Haydn and Mozart, he drew still closer to them. The slow movement voiced, perhaps for the first time, a tragic sadness with roots in Mozart, yet which cast its shadow long into the nineteenth century and even at times beyond. Soltani and the Barenboims shaped its course so unerringly that one never noticed the shaping, the skill and understanding behind, the material necessity. And what extraordinary material this is: that one felt as if for the first time, its strangeness confirmed and renewed. The finale brought an aptly direct and elliptical response, its goal before us, yet nevertheless held in suspense. If sometimes the music sounded close to Brahms in texture and harmony, that is only because it is indeed. Yet there was none of Brahms’s ‘lateness’, all the immediacy of middle-period Beethoven: as vigorous as it was euphonious, as impetuous as it was sublime.