Both the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela and Daniel Barenboim are capable of selling out the Royal Festival Hall on their own, and so when the two combined forces for the last of the orchestra’s three performances at the Southbank Centre this week it was unsurprising that the queues for returns reached extraordinary levels.
The programme consisted of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 of 1858 and his significantly later Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 of 1881. Barenboim is renowned for the extent to which he places his own interpretation on everything that he plays and yet, while there was certainly an air of individuality about his performances here, he and the orchestra did seem to work as one. Since there was no suggestion on the night that Barenboim was being overly dominant or that the orchestra was taking its cues from him rather than conductor Gustavo Dudamel, it seems clear that a joint vision had been arrived at in advance and brought to fruition during the rehearsal process. Certainly, Barenboim and Dudamel have previously performed the pieces together with the Staatskapelle Berlin.
The orchestra played extremely well, but the most striking feature was the sheer quality of its strings’ sound. The tightness and togetherness of the bow strokes across the sections acted as a brilliant basis from which to launch the First Piano Concerto’s opening Maestoso. The stridency in the bowing carried an air of haunting darkness as ample texture was brought to the sound. It was the strength of the underlying technique, however, that enabled the strings to tackle with equal deftness the music’s more wistful demands, while the wind also produced a notably sublime sound.
The clarity that Barenboim brought to his playing meant that it could feel a little too bold in the most tender passages, but as soon as the music became slightly more exuberant he produced playing of considerable sensitivity. If it was not a definitive performance, it was certainly one that seemed to transcend its imperfections so that everyone could really feel they were in the presence of a master, undergoing an experience that in every sense hit the mark.
By the time that Barenboim and the orchestra embarked on the more mature Second Piano Concerto analysis seemed almost redundant, although the strength of the strings in their ‘exchanges’ in the Allegro appassionato was particularly noteworthy, as was the beauty of the cello solo in the Andante. The Allegretto grazioso, which closes with the Tarantella, showcased in particular Barenboim’s ability to bring excitement to the music as much through his confidence as his technique, and it capped an exhilarating performance.
If the execution of the Piano Concertos alone would not have strictly merited the highest rating, the evening as a whole certainly did. Barenboim swiftly followed up the Brahms with a performance of Traumes Wirren from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 before the Southbank’s Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, explained to the audience that 17 January 2016 marked the sixtieth anniversary of his first appearance at the Royal Festival Hall.
In his heart warming speech that followed, Barenboim covered everything from his recollections of that seminal performance at the age of thirteen, to memories of the orchestras he had worked with over the years, to his views on the role of music in politics and society. He also paid tribute to Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, saying that the latter was of note not only for El Sistema, but for the world class standard of its music making. Its performance on this evening confirmed that comment, but the evening was ultimately Daniel Barenboim’s, and the numerous standing ovations towards its close said all that needed to be said about this momentous occasion.