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Barenboim in Birmingham - Beethoven & Schoenberg: Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (Conductor and Soloist) Symphony Hall, Birmingham 30.1 2010 (GR)

The 2009/10 Birmingham International Concert Season has attracted some big names this so far, but none more prestigious than Daniel Barenboim. He appeared with another renowned institution – the Staatskapelle Berlin, founded as the Brandenburg court orchestra in 1570! Barenboim has received many rave reviews during his career and this concert in a capacity filled Birmingham Symphony Hall was one of the highest standard. There was a distinct buzz in the atmosphere awaiting his appearance. Anticipating the delights to come, a standing ovation greeted the maestro (no overstatement of the word for once).

The first half featured Verklärte Nacht, an early string sextet from Schoenberg, heard here in the later full string version. We saw a mature and relaxed Barenboim, in complete control of the massed forces of the Staatskapelle; there were few histrionics from their Chief Conductor for Life. He’s long had the Tee shirt. Barenboim, prising out some amazing effects I had not experienced before in this piece, vividly recreated the Richard Dehmel text on which the composition is based. The stark opening phrases portrayed Dehmel’s ‘walk through a bare, cold grove’, and reminded me of my own chilly January promenade from train station to auditorium foyer. Some of the agony experienced by a woman in the narrative came across from the unified accentuations of the twenty plus first violins. Another point extracted very forcibly from the text I thought was Ich schaudernd; dynamic vibrations from the cellos and nine double basses that dominated the centre of the string ensemble, made up for any absence of a percussion section. As the key of D modulated from minor to major, I got a warm glow from the second violins as much of the woman’s burden was lifted in this Transfigured Night. During the prolonged applause, Barenboim slowly and deliberately walked off stage threading a path through his appreciative players, successfully negotiating an unkind steep step in the process (authorities please note). He returned to single out the outstanding front desks, including an unforgettable solo violist.

Much as the Schoenberg piece was appreciated, it was the second half that the Midlands had come to see and hear – the well-loved Piano Concerto No 5 in Eb Major by Beethoven. All high expectations were fulfilled. No doubt Barenboim has played the Emperor countless times, and many with the Staatskapelle Berlin (catch them together on a DVD live performance) but he made it sound as fresh and vibrant as perhaps he has ever done. The nobility and power of Beethoven were immediately conveyed in the opening Allegro. Equally impressive in the first movement was the extensive coda recalling the principal themes. Barenboim demonstrated that he could multi-task with the best of them – as the right hand threw out delicate arpeggios, extended left arm flourishes coordinated the Staatskapelle. The Adagio un poco mosso was serenity itself. The audience held their breath during the exquisite melody and virtuosic descending curves on the piano. Then after being on the edge of their seats for the transition into the Rondo, they were on their feet in approbation following the dazzling rising scales and final statement of the third movement.

Barenboim called for calm and addressed his fans. He had apparently been asked that since this was such a short concert if he would give an encore. While in the past I have complained about the public being short-changed, on this occasion it didn’t seem to matter. But he graciously obliged with an enchanting Chopin Nocturne. So in the end we were treated to a third facet of Barenboim, no less supreme than the previous two. A truly five star evening!

Geoff Read

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