Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim @ Royal Festival Hall, London

20 April 2012

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

This concert was the third and final instalment in a series entitled ‘The Bruckner Project’, featuring performances of the composer’s last three symphonies by Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. As with Barenboim’s previous appearances at the Royal Festival Hall in 2010, the three concerts sold out months in advance, despite the high ticket prices associated with a visiting overseas orchestra.

For the performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22 in E flat that opened the concert, Barenboim assumed the role of both pianist and conductor, sitting with his back to the audience and surrounded on three sides by the 50 strong orchestra. While this made sense in allowing Barenboim to direct the players, it also resulted in a rather glassy piano sound, no doubt an unavoidable effect of the hall’s unhelpful acoustics. The performance benefited from Barenboim’s decades long experience with the concerto, as well as the orchestra’s elegant strings and judiciously blended woodwinds. The first two movements could have benefited from a greater feeling of spontaneity, but the finale was suitably lively and the slow minuet section was exquisite.

Almost twice as many players were on stage for Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, a performance which Barenboim conducted from memory. After an opening informed by deeply sonorous horns and urgent string tremolandi, the first movement had an impressive feeling of fluidity, Barenboim gently nudging the pace forward on the approaches to climaxes and slowing for paragraph ends, although never obtrusively or at the expense of the longer line. The orchestral sound was rich and expressive, with particularly impressive contributions from lower strings and timpani. There were also, however, an occasional problems with ensemble, perhaps a consequence of the orchestra’s unrelenting schedule during recent weeks (concerts in both London and Paris on the preceding four nights, and Berg, Puccini and Wagner opera performances at home in Berlin).

The performance of the Scherzo was energetic and rugged, a dance of heavy booted goblins, contrasting with a persuasive account of the Trio. In the concluding Adagio, Barenboim’s interpretation was notable for its strong delineation of contrasting sections, the first subject slow and profound, the second glowing and ecstatic (with free bowing in the violins here for additional sonority). Barenboim similarly ensured there a strong contrast between the movement’s more expressionistic passages and those of profound meditation. The effect was occasionally episodic, however, as if Barenboim were more interested in the journey than the destination, resulting in a lack of tension in the build-up to the movement’s dissonant climax. Similarly, the reprise of the second subject that arises from the ensuing silence was unusually low key, and the symphony’s serene conclusion was not the profoundly moving experience that it can be.

Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk

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