Sunday, 6 April 2008

Daniel Barenboim/VPO, 6 April 2008

Theater an der Wien

Beethoven-Liszt - 'Andante cantabile' from the 'Archduke' Piano Trio in B flat major, Op.97
Beethoven - Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, Op.37
Beethoven - Piano Concerto no.4 in G major, Op.58

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

The Theater an der Wien, home to the Vienna State Opera immediately after the war, thereafter was largely confined to staging musicals, until its recent 'rebranding' as Vienna's 'New Opera House'. In addition to the operas being staged - I saw Idomeneo there a couple of years ago - there are other musical events, including this tribute to the composer who was 'in residence' during its earliest years. The theatre was also the venue of the celebrated/notorious concert in 1808, in which the first performances of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and his Choral Fantasia were 'complemented' by the first Vienna performance of his Fourth Piano Concerto and performances of the concert aria, Ah perfido!, and the 'Gloria' and 'Sanctus' from his Mass in C major. They don't make premieres like that any more, which is probably just as well.

There was, however, a rarity to open this performance: Liszt's arrangement for orchestra of the Andante cantabile from the 'Archduke' Trio. It was published first as part of Liszt's second 'Beethoven' cantata and then separately. I was delighted to make its acquaintance and should definitely like to hear it again. The orchestration is definitely of the later nineteenth-century, not least in its wonderful part for harp, but this in no sense jars. The Vienna Philharmonic's woodwind sounded utterly gorgeous: as high a class of Harmoniemusik as one could imagine. This performance gave a real sense of progression to its variation form and was a welcome change from one of the Beethoven overtures; it provided another historical layer of tribute to the occasion. It was interesting to note that Barenboim, who must often have performed the original version - indeed he recorded it - conducted from memory. I doubt that he can have conducted it many times previously.

The C minor piano concerto received a good if slightly underwhelming performance. Perhaps my expectations, especially following Barenboim's piano sonata cycle in London, were unreasonable, although I did sense that a little more preparation might have helped. For instance, although this is insignificant in itself, he had to adjust the level of his piano stool during the first movement. Someone ought to have checked that beforehand. The first exposition seemed slightly rushed into, and the movement took a while to settle down, in orchestral as well as solo terms. Indeed, it was only really in the third movement that the performance truly seemed to take wing, despite flashes of brilliance beforehand. The performance I heard Barenboim give with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra a few years ago seemed to me significantly more exciting, although there was nothing really 'wrong' with this one. Both pianist/conductor and orchestra nevertheless gave the impression that they knew the music inside out and did not have anything in particular to say on this occasion.

The Fourth, G major, piano concerto was stronger in every respect. The orchestra was more obviously 'conducted' from the outset and clearly benefited from this. Once a basic pulse and line had emerged, there was far more of the give and take of chamber music, although Barenboim was still prepared to guide where necessary. All sections of the orchestra shone, and Barenboim appeared to recapture some of the magical form from his sonata cycle. Particular highlights were the awe-inspiring first movement cadenza and the entire second movement. Here Orpheus really did tame the Furies, but what beautifully intransigent Furies they were! Barenboim's final piano phrase was an object lesson both in touch and in dramatic projection: something to melt the coldest of hearts, but in no sense sentimental. The sense of progression to the delightful finale was spot on. I could not help but notice at the end that the orchestra clearly loved Barenboim, something which cannot be said for the VPO and all of its conductors. I should be very keen to hear the partnership in the symphonies of Beethoven - and much else besides.