Germany Beethoven and Brahms: Martha Argerich (piano), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 20.12.2023. (MB)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major, Op.19
Brahms – Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90
Seventy-four years ago they met in Buenos Aires. They continue to play together, here in Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto, and continue to delight audiences. For my final concert of the year, it was a treat to hear Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, this time – and, I believe for the second time ever – with the Berlin Philharmonic. The warmth of applause at the beginning, let alone the close, offered testament to a special evening.
Although I have heard Barenboim many times in Beethoven, as pianist, as conductor, and as both, I do not think I had heard him conduct the BPO in Beethoven. Even with him, it offers a different sound from the Staatskapelle Berlin, but needless to say, there was absolutely no rebarbative faddishness to it, whether in tonal quality or tempo. Instead, the opening tutti spoke in a heart-rending beauty of tone in direct line from Mozart and owing as much in its fundamental harmonic rhythm to Klemperer as to Furtwängler (as has generally been the case in Barenboim’s Beethoven of the last decade or so). Every note mattered — and meant; as noble as the Fifth Symphony or Fidelio, though with requisite lightness of touch. Argerich responded in kind, though not without (quite rightly, as soloist) a certain wresting of initiative that yet always furthered collegial, chamber-music give-and-take. The piano part sang and scintillated, Barenboim and Argerich both bringing particular, complementary gifts to the performance. How a pivot chord from the piano told; how an orchestral sequence built harmonically; and how left-hand bass rumbling led us toward the tonic for the moment of return. The music continued to ‘grow’, not only to develop, throughout the recapitulation, Berlin strings truly digging in, preparing the way for Beethoven’s own cadenza, a missive from the Beethovenian future, lying gloriously beyond the language of the concerto ‘itself’.
The opening tutti of the Adagio, in contrast, complement, and development, was consoling as well as dramatic, a new frame for a new yet related painting. Argerich’s solo grew from within, its ethical subjectivity both singular and in accord with that of Barenboim’s wise narration. Together, their voice, Beethoven’s voice, had one believe – and so one should – that it was the voice of truth, its hushed tones and awe prefiguring the ‘late’ voice of the Ninth Symphony or even the Missa solemnis, piano elaboration nonetheless reminding us of the different nature of this music. Spun from finest Egyptian cotton, it was a sensuous delight as well as a musical necessity. This was the very model of a Beethoven slow movement. The finale was forthright as ever, from all concerned. After Elysian reverie, fun and goodness were to be had back on earth — and how. Like sparks of the divine, they were present in the detail as well as the broader contours, in articulation and acciaccaturas as in the tonal plan, in orchestral syncopation and in Haydnesque conversation. Civilisation matters, perhaps especially in our terrible historical moment, and the wonder of modulation is part of it, as triumphantly displayed here.
A surprise encore came in Schubert’s A major Rondo for piano four hands, D 951, Barenboim taking his seat next to Argerich, their page-turner none other than concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto. Here, in confidences whispered more softly than ever before, was a very different subjectivity, its fragility no less touching, an act of remembrance nonetheless in the here and now rather than an act that was ‘about’ remembrance. Episodes unfolded in their own time, and according to their own necessity. Indeed, time almost stood still, but not quite.
A larger orchestra assembled after the interval for Brahms’s Third Symphony, twelve first violins now fourteen, four double basses now seven, and so forth. Anyone expecting something sedate would have been immediately put to rights, the opening of the first movement not only febrile but angry, albeit quite without the trivial hysteria some, though never Barenboim, seem to think constitutes musical emotion and ‘excitement’. The second group retreated to the world of Schubert’s Rondo; here was music we over-heard, in a dialectical conception of the movement taking us between public and private. All the while, life was to be found in the inner parts, rather as if in a string quartet — or in Wagner. Sinews, honed again on Klemperer and Furtwängler, unleashed still greater anger in the development. This, for me at least, was music for and of Palestine, a musical land of beauty almost ‘occupied’, a heart of darkness terrifying in its truth. The grim determination of the recapitulation, and not only that, would not have been out of place in the composer’s Fourth Symphony. It was not without consolation, though need for that consolation had been immeasurably heightened.
Heard in a veiled dignity that enhanced riches both textual and textural, the Andante possessed a majestic intimacy suggestive somehow both of an expanded string quartet and, at times, of an imaginary ballet, Tchaikovsky closer than one might think. Once again, so much grew, motivically but also harmonically, from those glowing inner parts. Strange dissonances registered a pain both inner and inward. The third movement proved a sad serenade, whose eternally transforming song bore post-Beethovenian witness to the eternal – and eternally troubled – spirit of humanity. Did it meander? Perhaps a little, but not if that be taken to mean lack of clarity as to destination; rather, this was a musical stream, with twists and turns, yet undeniable, directed flow. The subdued opening of the finale only heightened the impact of subsequent bursting of the banks. Again, the Fourth was foreshadowed in darkness, even in tragedy, though that remained only one side of the coin. There was hard-won Beethovenian joy too, if briefly. Stubborn as well as graceful, this was a reading of thoroughgoing integrity, whether in those echt-Brahmsian half-lights, in ghostly reminiscences, or under a winter sun that just occasionally suggested spring might come. Above all, it was a struggle, a necessary one at that.