Astonishing Elgar from Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin

18/10/2019

GermanyGermany Rachmaninov, Elgar and Strauss: Lahav Shani (piano), Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 15.10.2019. (MB)

Lahav Shani (c) Marco Borggreve

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor Op.30
Elgar – Falstaff Op.68
Strauss – Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche Op.28

The most German of all English composers, no one benefits more greatly than Elgar from rescue from the clammy, constricting embrace of ‘English music’. No conductor and orchestra perform that deed of rescue with greater conviction, insight, and rewards than Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. With this astonishing performance of Falstaff, they perhaps surpassed even themselves. Here, pre-empting Till Eulenspiegel, in danger of slightly overshadowing it, we heard a tone poem unmistakeably in Strauss’s tradition, albeit pushed still further, certainly not to be reduced to inheritance; yet equally unmistakeably, it spoke with Elgar’s voice, as if this were his true third symphony. Mordant yet affectionate, grand yet intimate, as thrilling as it was poignant, this performance, full of colour and incident, was, as much as any from Barenboim of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, or Wagner, founded securely and dynamically on harmonic and motivic development. Counterpoint was dramatically, even riotously, as generative as any in Die Meistersinger. Barenboim’s expert shaping at micro- and macro-levels never felt unduly moulded; this was music-making without so much as a hint of narcissism. Conductor and orchestra alike nonetheless revelled in the sheer complexity and virtuosity of a work that has eluded so many; I certainly felt that it had eluded me as a listener until then, hearing it as if for the first time. String tone was glorious, yet never for its own sake; every part of the orchestra, every soloist – principal bassoon, cello, and concertmaster first among equals – came truly into their own, as if this were their core repertoire. Thanks to Barenboim, it is not far off becoming so.

It was fascinating, then, to hear Till Eulenspiegel in Falstaff’s wake, in a performance that shared many of its virtues and added others of its own. Infinitely flexible, where called for, it was equally secure in direction and equally vivid in narrative. Above all, perhaps, it smiled – through Strauss’s mastery, Barenboim’s, and that of the Staatskapelle Berlin. Technique is, or should be, a supremely enjoyable thing; so it was here. It should be a moving thing too, when in the service of something worthy, which here was the case in every sense.

In the first half, we had heard Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, with Lahav Shani as soloist. This is less obvious Barenboim territory, though he proved a wise, supportive accompanist to his protégé. In the first movement, depth and clarity alike characterised an often understated performance at swift tempi, not the only thing Shani’s approach had in common with the composer’s own. There was plenty of space nonetheless for pianistic reverie, for evocation of more than a few Lisztian sprites too. The second movement, arguably possessed of a broader emotional range here, sounded more in the line of Tchaikovsky. The piano part in particular proved more volatile, without loss to precision and pointing. There was no grandstanding to the finale, again taken swiftly, and none the worse for it. The turn to the major was especially well handled, Barenboim clearly understanding – and communicating – what was at stake. Harmony, then, once more.

Mark Berry

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