United Kingdom Prom 69 – Mozart, Bruckner: Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 5.9.2016. (CC)
Mozart – Piano Concerto in C minor, K491 (1786)
Bruckner – Symphony No. 4 in E flat, ‘Romantic’ (1874, rev. 1878, 1880, ed. Nowak)
The final weeks of the Proms often bring delights galore in the form of visiting orchestras. After the Berliner Philharmoniker, therefore, comes the Berlin Staatskapelle with its ‘General Music Director and Chief Conductor for Life’, Daniel Barenboim. The title is significant, as it reveals something about the relationship between orchestra and conductor, one of obvious affection and trust.
Throughout his life, Barenboim has been associated with the Mozart concertos, and his early English Chamber Orchestra cycle, currently on Warner Classics (review), remains an astonishing achievement of joy in music making combined with a wisdom far in excess of his years. Barenboim is almost as closely associated with Bruckner, with no less than three recorded cycles of the symphonies under his belt. No wonder he conducted from memory.
But first, Mozart’s C minor concerto, one of that composer’s most profound utterances in the concerto field (there’s only one other concerto in the minor mode, the D minor, K466). A pared-down orchestra took up only a small portion of the stage, but the three double-basses added to the depth of sound. Incisive brass and timpani contrasted with the well-shaped opening, an opening that implies organic growth will be all. While the Berlin Staatskapelle exuded energy, Barenboim’s opening piano statement was incredibly gentle. There was a palpable sense of joy in the orchestral exploration of sonority, from the bed of string sound to the bucolic, chalumeau-register clarinet and the way the wind group functioned at times as a perfect chamber ensemble. One has to admire the clarity of Barenboim’s performance throughout, his pedal technique impeccable. The first movement cadenza was by Barenboim himself, starting off rather percussively (based on a neighbour-note figure) before exploring the territory in a never less than fascinating fashion.
The central Larghetto, opening with a beautifully shaped statement of the theme from Barenboim himself, held glowing strings and a simply wonderful pair of oboes; the supreme darkness of the opening of the Allegretto finale was in effect presaging the moments of the utmost intimacy to be found later in the movement. This was a terrific account of the concerto..
Mozart and Bruckner make fine bedfellows. Stephen Johnson contributed a fine essay in the programme booklet on the relationship between the two, noting Bruckner’s detailed analysis of the Mozart Requiem, and the matching of deep expression and formal balance. Bruckner’s Fourth is a magnificent entity, and Barenboim did it full justice. The playing was remarkable from everyone, but special mention should go to the principal horn, Ignacio Garcia, whose accuracy both in that perilously exposed opening (superbly clear slurs) and throughout was simply remarkable, not just in the complete lack of splits but also in hitting every note bang in the centre, and providing the most musical of phrasing.
Barenboim placed eight double-basses above the rest of the orchestra and behind the brass, anchoring the sound in the most visceral, chthonic way, while antiphonal violins created beauty of balance as well as enabling us to hear the second violin lines with amazing clarity. His way of shaping the first movement was a clear lesson in structural hearing, enabling the flute decorations when the horn opening returns to take on an extra layer of magic. Perhaps the cello sound was on the wiry side, which impacted on the long lyrical lines in this symphony, especially when one contrasted this to the glorious viola section in the second movement.
Barenboim’s unexplained exit after the second movement for a few moments before returning to resume where he left off raised at least one eyebrow (mine) but it mattered not in the large scale of things. The hunting fanfares of the fast-paced Scherzo had a great rawness to them – and the brass proved they could be wonderfully light as well as blazing; the extra-gentle Trio was a real treat, affectionately cradled by Barenboim.
Tight control of rhythm in the finale was its finest defining feature, with Barenboim preparing each peak perfectly; this performance’s last movement seemed to dwell more than most on the music’s eloquence and, indeed, the progressive nature of some of the scoring. Misterioso pianissimi were positively relished.
A triumph, then, in almost every respect. More Mozart and Bruckner pairings follow: Prom 70 with the same forces pairs Mozart Piano Concerto No. 26 with Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. Then in Prom 71 Daniil Trifonov is the soloist in the 21st Concerto with the Dresden Staatskapelle under Christian Thielemann who also offer the Bruckner Third. . Now that’s what the Proms is all about.