Following his acclaimed cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas in 2008, Daniel Barenboim has now returned to the Southbank to perform the five piano concertos. Whereas the previous series featured only Beethoven, this time Barenboim is coupling the concertos with works by Schoenberg.Barenboim’s orchestra is the renowned Staatskapelle Berlin, of which he has been principal conductor since 1992.
It’s a measure of Barenboim’s reputation that the four concerts sold out months in advance. However, for those unable to obtain tickets, live screenings of each concert are being provided for free in the Royal Festival Hall’s Clore Ballroom.
Launching the series was Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, a work composed between 1795 and 1800 (some years after the work now known as the Second Piano Concerto). Barenboim directed from the keyboard with wide, sweeping gestures when not preoccupied with keyboard duties, the orchestra happily maintaining ensemble on their own at other times. In keeping with the provenance of the concerto, a fairly modest contingent of some 30 strings was used, the violins divided right and left. Nevertheless, there was a slight stodginess and lack of sparkle in tutti passages and I did wonder whether a smaller string deployment might have given a more incisive sound.
Notwithstanding the eloquent contributions of the clarinet in the Largo and the oboe in the Rondo, this was a performance where the majority of the musical interest was provided by the piano. Despite the large amount of time Barenboim spends conducting, age hasn’t dimmed his technique in rapid passagework. The concerto’s outer movements were notable for their vigour and energy, the Largo for its generous rubato, hushed pianissimos and rapt trills. If overall this was not a fully rounded performance, it was nevertheless an absorbing one.
The Beethoven concerto may have been the draw for many people, but it was Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande that received the greater performance. This large scale symphonic poem, composed when Schoenberg was in his late 20s, calls for eight horns, five trombones, quadruple woodwind and a large string section. Barenboim’s identification with the score was second to none, a dramatic and compelling interpretation which gave equal measure to both the romantic and expressionistic elements of the music.
The playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin was superb, the orchestra providing a warm, lush sound, with yearning strings, menacing brass and visceral thwacks on the bass drum. The orchestral balance was exemplary throughout, with a chamber music filigree brought to the work’s more delicate passages. It was a moving account and, as in the earlier Beethoven performance, Barenboim conducted entirely from memory.