Deeply Considered Musicianship from Barenboim and Lupu


Berlin Festtage (5). Brahms, Schoenberg, and Beethoven: Radu Lupu, Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 12.4.2017. (MB)

Brahms – Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op.56a

Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16

Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73

Brahms and Schoenberg always complement each other well; they certainly did so here, Daniel Barenboim and his Staatskapelle Berlin past masters in the music of both composers. Barenboim seemed to choose just the ‘right’ tempo – not to say that there are not others – for the Theme in Brahms’s Haydn Variations, and indeed for each of the variations that followed, the work very much conceived of and communicated as a whole. Pauses (or not) between movements were very much part of the overall conception in a deeply considered reading that lacked nothing in (apparent) spontaneity. Lightness of touch and depth were revealed as two sides of the same coin, with wonderfully ‘true’ – never more so than in the opening statement of the Theme – Harmoniemusik. Moreover, the string tone we heard in the first variation and beyond simply, or not so simply, sounded just right for Brahms, its darkness undeniable yet never overshadowing. Classicism and modernism, Gemütlichkeit and violence: all manner of dialectics were in play, just as they would be in Schoenberg, albeit with at least a greater pretence at reconciliation. The pathos of the minor mode seemed to look back to Mozart’s Pamina, whilst swifter, more impetuous (yet still controlled) movements, pulsating with life, however mediated, evoked Mendelssohn, Elgar, even, in the eight variation, will-o’-the-wisp Webern. The nobility of the cumulative sweep found true fulfilment in the closing passacaglia. Its victory was not easily won, yet it was undeniable. Magnificent, then, and deeply moving – and yes, the triangle made me smile.

Barenboim also conducted Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces without a score (as he would, unsurprisingly, the Beethoven concerto in the second half). The first movement opened in medias res, Brahms’ developing variation further developed, as it were, albeit with an almost Straussian transformative technique also in play (or so it sounded). What writing this is for, and what playing this was from, a huge orchestra! It thrilled, seemingly concentrating the action from an entire operatic scene into its brief duration. The second piece brought seemingly necessary contrast: not exactly relaxation, but a change of pace, at least until its own developing variation gathered its own pace. Schoenberg’s sonorities, whether soloistic or, more often, in combination, beguiled as if they were Mozart’s; moreover, they continued, more than a century on, to surprise. A Mahlerian sense of purpose in performance, married to Brahmsian involvement – in more than one sense – brought a mesmerising experience indeed. The Klangfarbenemelodie of the third movement had one realise quite how far we had come from Brahms, not least in the opening wind chords, which one could hardly fail to compare and contrast with the opening of the Haydn Variations. The occasional slightly awkward ‘join’ is almost inevitable; others were, it seemed, effected by sorcery. Tendencies from earlier movements united and reacted in the fourth and fifth. Violence and its aftershock were very much the order of the day in the close of the former, whilst languor and urgency somehow seemed to coexist with, even incited, each other in the latter. Here there is a phantasmagoria at least as impressive as anything in Strauss, but with a thoroughly Brahmsian grounding. Draining yet exhilarating. Judging by his personal applause for the orchestra, Barenboim was rightly appreciative of his players’ work.

Radu Lupu joined the orchestra for Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. This was not an easy ride, but even when it edged towards – and arguably, on one occasion in the finale, beyond – catastrophe, Beethovenian spirit was ever-present. Beethoven, after all, should never be easy. Lupu’s opening flourish sounded almost extemporised: not arbitrary, but free. Its little smudges did not matter, at least not to me. And what touch! What orchestral weight and clarity, moreover, Barenboim marrying once again tendencies with roots in Klemperer (with whom he recorded this work) and Furtwängler, now so internalised that they seem entirely his own. For he and Lupu undoubtedly understood that the work’s foundation, almost by definition, lies in its harmony. There was something almost Cortot-like, errors and all, in Lupu’s playing: magic in the right hand, of course, but it was the left hand that perhaps intrigued more, the very locus of Beethoven’s struggles. Neither Lupu nor Barenboim was afraid of rhetoric; if you are, this is certainly not your piece. Such rhetoric, however, grew out of the music rather than being imposed upon it.

A bardic quality to Lupu’s declamation – Wagner would surely have approved – was also apparent in the slow movement: a reverie more directed, and yet seemingly also more spontaneous, than its counterpart in the previous night’s Violin Concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter. Lupu touched and charmed, seemingly creating the music before our ears; the Staatskapelle Berlin offered a solemn, dignified ‘backdrop’ that nevertheless wanted nothing in life. The beauty of the transition to the finale might almost have been effected by Liszt himself, the sense of release somehow postponed until the coming of the orchestral tutti, liminality extended. Here one had to overlook a good deal technically, and I can understand why some might not have been able to do so – not that there seemed to be any such reaction in the audience – but even in catastrophe, there was the truest of authenticity. Moreover, whatever shortcomings there may have been in the despatch of the piano part, the electricity of the orchestral performance – how, for instance, motivic development worked itself through the different string registers – was, even by these players’ standards, quite something indeed.

Mark Berry



  1. Patrik Enander says:

    Thank you for an interesting review. I’ve so long wanted to hear him live. Living in Sweden where he doesn´t come often I took a trip to Berlin. And I must say I’m disappointed. It felt like an ordinary day at the office… and a bit surprised by the technical short-comings! And that they sometimes pulled apart.
    I do agree that the second part and especially the transition to the third part was excellent. But during the third part I felt that as soon he came in the musical intensity dropped and I found myself listening more to the orchestra and Barenboim.
    The woman next to me, a Beethoven-loving Dane, agreed with me on every point. We thought the applause afterwards was for the legend not, sadly, for the concert.

    • Cristian Radu says:

      I can totally agree with your comment. Radu Lupu is one of my biggest inspiration (I am studying piano too) and the concert in March in Berlin somehow proved to me that he was (and maybe still is) a legend. You could hear glimpses of a strong Russian-schooled background in the 2nd movement, but indeed a regular day at the office (some slips and errors almost Cortot-like).

      It was my first time seeing them (Barenboim and Lupu) so I was all very impressed.

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