Sheer Delight! Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin Begin Their Schubert Cycle

26/04/2017

Schubert: Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 22.4.2017. (MB)

Schubert – Symphony no.1 in D major, D 82; Symphony no.3 in D major, D 200; Symphony no.2 in B-flat major, D 125

As part of the Pierre Boulez Saal’s focus on the music of Schubert, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin will be performing two cycles of his symphonies. This, with the first three, was the opening concert of the first. It was the first time I had heard an orchestral performance in the hall; I am delighted to report that the acoustic – and indeed the musical – results were just as estimable as they had been with chamber or solo forces. Barenboim used a relatively small orchestra (strings 8.6.4.3.2), whose warm sound veritably filled the hall, without remotely overwhelming it.

The First Symphony is far too little heard in the concert hall. It may not be a ‘masterpiece’, but it is a lovely piece, whatever the occasional stiffness of form. (For any instance of that, there will be several anticipations of the later Schubert.) The Adagio introduction to the first movement offered all the warmth and grandeur of Barenboim’s Mozart (most recently, in my case, his Haffner Symphony). There was much of Haydn, too, in its harmonic mystery, likewise in the joy that ensued in the exposition proper. The second subject smiled, as did I, the grace one heard unmistakeably Schubertian. And what an orchestral sound: deep, rich, yet capable of the greatest, ‘natural’ refinement and transparency. Barenboim treated the onset of the development with great drama, with all the seriousness one would expect from the later symphonies. Alas, there was serious disruption to proceedings from one audience member loudly – and at length – telling another to turn off his tablet. The recapitulation thus proved doubly welcome, its majesty again recalling late Mozart, its second subject as lovely as ever. In the Andante, Mozartian grace, married to a more rural, ‘Austrian’ bucolicism (already just a hint of Bruckner), vied with countervailing darker paths, full, although not too full, of Romantic promise and mystery. A slow tempo, at least by standards fashionable today, permitted some gorgeous, heart-stopping moments fully to register. The Minuet, one-to-a-bar, had one foot in the ballroom, one in the concert hall; it was almost, at times, as if it were an operatic representation of the dance. The trio relaxed and lingered just enough. In the finale, we heard an ideal balance between weight and wit, its harmonic foundations and melodic impishness. Delightful!

The Third Symphony might, on paper, have seemed to offer a little too much D major in the first half; not a bit of it, though. The grandeur of its opening chord sounded as if to outdo, or to advance upon, that of its predecessor. Then, of course, the music took quite a different path, more musically luxuriant, perhaps. The first movement proved just as sheerly enjoyable as, say, in Beecham’s celebrated recording, but with more overt harmonic grounding. Barenboim, now conducting from memory, would often simply stand back and let his players play. There was no dragging, quite rightly, in the Allegretto. Its unassuming charm seemed once again to evoke the Austrian countryside, the dancing led by outstanding woodwind soloists. The Minuet – surely a scherzo in all but name – was vigorous yet gracious; again, its lilting trio relaxed to just the right degree, as if paying homage to Mozart. The finale seemed keener to pay homage to Haydn, albeit in a thoroughly Schubertian spirit. It was as witty and as serious as I can recall. As the Leipzig Gewandhaus motto has it, Res severa verum gaudium.

For the second half and the Second Symphony, Barenboim turned the orchestra around. Whereas previously, he and the front desks had been closest to me, now they were on the other side, him facing me. It is good to see full use being made of the space of the salle modulable to offer different perspectives, both visual and aural (although such is the acoustic, the aural difference was far less than it would have been in most halls). The opening majesty of the first movement was of a different, swifter order, fully in keeping, so it seemed, with the different quality of the material, both in that movement and in the symphony as a whole. There is arguably a greater formal dynamism here, certainly something of a grander scale; so too did it sound in performance, closer to Beethoven, especially during the development, although still quite distinct. It was an especial joy to be seated so close to the woodwind for the Harmoniemusik. The transparency of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s sound permitted the Andante second movement to unfold with love, testament to the still often underrated virtues of Classical variation form. Darker passages were not undersold; nor were they turned into something they were not. Other variations quite simply charmed the socks off this listener.  The surprises of the Minuet were relished, its trio again the perfect counterweight. The finale, fast in a way that Mozart rarely is but Haydn often is, once again sounded just ‘right’. Its vigour occasionally looked forward to Bruckner, but remained ‘itself’, a true Schubertian delight. I greatly look forward to the next instalment.

Mark Berry

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