Concert One & Two | Staatskapelle BerlinPhotos – Peter Adamik

Daniel Barenboim believes, as I do, and as Beethoven did, that we can change the world through music. For many of us this is an ideal, but mostly relegated to the sphere of the impossible. Not for Barenboim though. He has, for example, famously collaborated with that exemplar of the civilised man, Edward Said, to build an orchestra of reconciliation, the East-West Divan, in which Israelis play side by side with Palestinians. He has founded an academy in Berlin specifically for the training of musicians from Arab countries. And every performance he gives embodies the belief in the common humanity of all peoples.

It is difficult to describe the performances in his cycle of Brahms symphonies. I was overwhelmed by the sheer presence of the music, the intense immediacy of the experience. Most of the audience probably knew these pieces well – they form, after all, a central part of the symphonic canon – but as I listened I could sense that the whole audience felt that they had never heard them before, and hung on every note, surprised again and again by what followed what.

In much of the first symphony, which Brahms took almost 20 years to write, Barenboim simply allowed the orchestra to play, coaxing them here, galvanising them there, bringing out an inner line from time to time, but largely just letting them play. For example, he just let the timpani lead the beginning of the first movement. This approach gave rise, in the first three movements, to a chamber-music-like sound and sense of player-generated ensemble, and brought out felicities in the scoring seldom if ever experienced – who thought there was so much Mahler in the slow movement, for example? And is this why the wind, answering the vast, tragic sentence that opens the symphony, played with an intonation so flawless it practically took your breath away? Probably not – they just know how to play in tune – but nonetheless those diminished sevenths are never quite as perfect as this. And so it continued. The first horn (I think it was Samuel Seidenberg in this piece) and first oboe (Gregor Witt), answering each other again and again in both symphonies, knew how to approach each other, like two quite different people who agree profoundly about something.

And yet – everyone in the orchestra was conscious of the music as it was in Barenboim’s mind – and of course with his phenomenal memory he knows every single note of the score. And this is the extraordinary thing. Barenboim gave his experience of the music, cultivated by his particular genius over decades, and having thus made it his own, directly to the audience, because, despite his frequent self-effacement from actually conducting, he was everywhere in the room.

This was not simply a case of less is more. It was more as if, when he allows the orchestra to play without much direction, he is making himself transparent, so that his understanding of the music – no that is too weak an expression – his union with the music was perceptible by every musical ear in the house. Absence in presence. In detachment there is engagement.

The first symphony is what Jan Swafford calls an end-directed piece; that is to say, the centre of gravity is in the finale. At this point Barenboim intervened. What drama in the slow introduction! The softest of pizzicati, the most bewildered expostulations from the wind; always the question, how can we escape this confusion? Then the first horn, with the Cambridge chimes. Not a distant hope, but a very present burst of sunshine, redolent with confidence – Seidenberg used a quite different sonority from anything he had played before. Then when he is joined by the second horn (Hanno Westphal), what a flood of golden certainty!

In the main part of the movement, which begins with the tune of which someone remarked to Brahms, “That reminds me of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy” (to which Brahms responded, “Any fool can see that”) Barenboim played the military power of Bismarck’s victorious army without irony, but also without the hard violence that sometimes characterises this passage. And in this movement Barenboim’s celebrated flexibility of tempo really took hold of the music, reminding us that it was written at much the same time as Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.

The Second Symphony is sometimes called Brahms’ Pastoral, by analogy with Beethoven’s sixth which was written just after his C minor symphony. For his performance of the Second Symphony Barenboim brushed aside such factitious parallelism and played it as a rich outpouring of personal feeling. The cello section is of course treated with special affection by Brahms in all four symphonies. Led variously in the cycle of four symphonies by Sennu Laine and Claudius Popp, they played the second theme in the first movement with a restrained expressivity that invited the audience gently, seductively, to follow them. The finale was an excited, passionate romp.

I had only two very slight cavils from the first night’s performance. Once or twice in the first movement of the 1st Symphony the woodwind were obscured by the sheer weight of gorgeous sound from the violins. The Staatskapelle is full of the most wonderful players. But I wondered if many of the strings had really taken to heart that Brahms’ violinists played on instruments with gut E and A strings. With such strings his apparently unbalanced scoring sounds just that much more transparent.

The other was the massively plangent vibrato the the first violin used in the concluding solo in the slow movement. Perhaps this was one of the very few times when I found Barenboim’s understanding of the music at variance with mine. I feel this conclusion as one of seraphic calm, rather than passionate eloquence.

The second night began with Brahms’ Third Symphony. This is his Eroica, about the hero in the world, his loves, and his confrontation with death. But unlike Beethoven’s hero, who is an externalised figure (for example, Napoleon), Brahms hero is a deeply personal one. Although Barenboim omitted the repeats of the exposition in both the first and the second symphonies, here he played the repeat. I saw the point of all of these decisions. In the first symphony the repeat disturbs the forward thrust of the drama; in the second there is both enough basking in lyricism, and a thorough enough exploration of the semitone motif with which it begins, without the repeat. The exposition of the third symphony, however, is much more complex, both rhythmically and rhetorically, and also very concise. It gained structurally from its repeated exposition.

In the second movement the hero consoles his beloved as she approaches death. The beloved is represented by the first clarinet, meltingly played by Matthias Glander, whereas the strings represent the hero and his attempts to console, to encourage her, to understand what she is going through; and also his own anguish. This movement was played so lovingly by Barenboim, with so much flexibility and space given to every utterance, that it was almost too much to bear. In the finale the hero wrestles with his own death. The transformations of the chorale, which emerges as a sinister premonition, becomes the centre of a violent struggle, and finally is the instrument of resignation and acceptance, were just amazing. The different colours displayed by the brass section were staggering.

After the deep tenderness of the Third, I was expecting the Fourth to be brooding and introspective. I could not have been more wrong. Everyone knows that it is a tragic symphony, but it is not usually played so as to tell you why. Barenboim (who actually conducted much more in this piece, it being a more tutti and less chamber-music-like symphony than the other three) brought out all the military implications of the brass fanfares in every movement, and made it clear that its tragedy is about war. Not war with the victory implied by the finale of the first symphony, but the consequences in terms of suffering and death inevitable in war.

There were many individual felicities in the orchestral detail, the most touching of which was the flute solo in the centre of the finale – this tenderest of moments in the mighty passacaglia – played by Claudia Stein, pure to the last note. But mostly one was aware of the orchestra as a protean mass, constantly changing in colours but rarely straightforward in texture. But above all, it was a statement against division, against the senselessness of selfish nationalism that leads to war. (I think Brahms must have changed his mind about things since the first symphony 8 years before.)

This was Barenboim’s statement, and after the performance he addressed the audience. He spoke of our need, as Australians, to address our history, particularly with respect to inclusiveness and reconciliation with our indigenous population. He had already demonstrated, in his performances, the love and compassion that underlies such a statement. He finished by saying: “...a country that does not make its account with the past is not a country that deserves to be in the society of nations.” (The speech is published in full in Limelight magazine). This statement, uncomfortable, uncompromising, but the simple truth, echoes the idea expressed by some Indigenous leaders, that until a full reconciliation has been reached, Australia should not become a republic.

Australia! Wake up to this!

Sydney Opera House presents
Concert 1 – Brahms symphonies 1 and 2 | Concert 2 – Brahms symphonies 3 and 4
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra

Conductor Daniel Barenboim

Venue: Sydney Opera House
Dates: Concert 1 – 25 November 2018 | Concert 2 – 26 November 2018
Tickets: from $99



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