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S & H Concert Review

Brahms: The Symphonies, Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, RFH, 16th-17th January 2003 (MB)

Daniel Barenboim’s two concerts of the complete Brahms symphonies with the Staatskapelle Berlin merely proved the case that no one conductor seems able to penetrate to the heart of these works. In the first concert a slap-dash performance of Brahms’ Second Symphony was followed by an inspired account of Brahms’ Fourth, and in the second concert a plain dull performance of the Third was followed by an incandescent account of the First. The middle symphonies – one’s which both Toscanini and Furtwängler spent a lifetime trying to perfect in performance, but never did – showed how intellectually impoverished some conductors appear to be when confronted by these enigmatic works.

The Second, in so many ways the most lyrical of the four, was so heavily conducted by Barenboim, with wildly distorted tempi, that it never got off the ground. Lazy articulation, poor intonation, uneven pitch and careless phrasing marred the performance from the start. Lyrical though the work is it also has moments of great drama but Barenboim’s lugubrious tempi dissipated most of this. The balletic third movement stalled, and even the glittering fanfares which close the symphony failed to ignite as they should (how Beecham gets that moment so cataclysmically right). The last bars were a mess – with trumpets, trombones and horns all pitched differently, the sound jarred with so many notes split one really wondered why conductor and orchestra had bothered.

After the interval came a kinetic performance of the Fourth and a vision of the work that fully justifies this symphony as one of the very greatest ever composed. Liquid tempi, sublime phrasing (with antiphonally divided violins cavorting beautifully between each other) gave the symphony a lifeline which Barenboim seized magnificently. The pedestrianism, and overtly perverse rubato which had marred the Second, was eschewed in favour of a full-blooded performance that shattered preconceptions about how Barenboim might approach work. Barenboim’s vision of the symphony is much closer to Carlos Kleiber’s than it is to Furtwängler’s with the balance between elegy and dynamism rather more evenly matched than Furtwängler ever achieved in his performances of this work. True, there were moments of impassioned nobility in Barenboim’s reading of the opening movement which veered towards the dangerous but when it came to the movement’s closing bars that rushed histrionicism that so frequently bedevilled a Furtwängler performance was not evident. Barenboim’s balanced reading just bordered on the right side of the dramatic. Crowning this superb performance was a magnificent assumption of the Passacaglia with playing of dark-hued tonal weight.

The second evening’s concert – coupling the Third and First symphonies – followed a familiar route. The Third, a symphony of questionable ambiguities, proved again how dangerous a conductor’s individual rubato can be, often leaving the development of this work floundering. Barenboim achieved moments of pianissimo string playing that were astonishing for their lightness, but he coupled this with a breadth of phrasing that bordered on the somnambulant (not least in the interminable Andante). It was almost as if the prevailing tragedy of the work had overwhelmed him and his vision of this symphony was largely a highly spurious one which remained unconvincing from first note to last. With parentheses replacing homogeneity the symphony was almost structureless under Barenboim’s tired baton.

The complete antithesis to this was a highly spontaneous performance of the First symphony that raged infernally. Only in their performance of this symphony did this splendid orchestra come into its own with mellow strings, highly atmospheric woodwind and resolute brass heralding a performance of total integrity. From the very opening drum strokes – so velvety in their resonance, and so perfectly measured – this developed into a reading of pointed breadth and high drama. Barenboim drew intense expressivity from his players – especially from the strings – with the ingenuity of Brahms’ writing placed entirely at the service of the music. The performance lacked none of the granite strength one expects from this symphony and the comparatively brusque tempi Barenboim adopted served to give the work a tortured impetus so lacking in performances of this symphony today. Where this orchestra came into its own was in the final movement with the gorgeous woodwind melodies played with sublime beauty; only an orchestra schooled in opera could ever play this music with the utter conviction of dialogue witnessed here; it was little short of miraculous. With brass peerlessly toned, and strings sumptuously dark, this was an unblemished performance of startling originality.

Although these were clearly very uneven concerts (perhaps the harshness of my comments on the Second should be mollified by knowing just before the opening of the second concert that the orchestra had had accommodation problems on their first day in London) they were in some ways all the more remarkable for their erratic stature. The fallibility of both conductor and orchestra proved uniquely human when we are used to pristine, crystal-cut performances of uniform dullness. The Staatskapelle Berlin is clearly an orchestra of outstanding pedigree, with a depth of sound so utterly Germanic to make the Berlin Philharmonic sound rather bland beside them, and Barenboim is clearly a gifted Brahmsian when it suits him. These two concerts offered glimpses of the great music making it is still possible to hear – and no one who heard their performances of the First and Fourth symphonies could really think otherwise.

Marc Bridle



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