Concert Three | Staatskapelle BerlinPhotos – Peter Adamik

Daniel Barenboim’s third concert with the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra gave us Schubert’s Unfinished symphony and Beethoven’s Eroica. For the Schubert, the orchestra reduced itself by a couple of desks of violins, and a desk of each of the lower strings, and the result was, from where I was sitting in the middle of the stalls, a perfect balance with the woodwind. The Unfinished was played throughout with the extreme tenderness the orchestra had shown the previous evening in the slow movement of Brahms 3. The pianissimi, always wonderful with this orchestra, were just breathtaking here. The moment when the opening theme on cello and basses returns at the start of the development, when instead of returning upon itself the theme goes on and on downwards until it reaches the lowest note possible (C – even on the double basses!) – it was so soft that when the music slowly builds up it seemed to come from the very centre of the earth. And the astral, unaccompanied violins in the slow movement, when the music almost goes into suspended animation – there was seraphic calm! Yet even in those passages where Barenboim slows the tempo to allow such moments of wonder to have the space they need, there is always the feeling that things are in motion, something will follow. Barenboim played the syncopations in the slow movement like the gentle anticipation of a beating heart, at the opposite extreme from the way he played the syncopations in the Eroica. But even as I write this, I realise that it was played, of course, by the orchestra, not by the conductor. And here again he demonstrated that skill of letting the orchestra (who are all fabulous musicians) play. And yet behind this everyone was aware of his utter conviction in his reading of the music, conveyed with a gesture here, a change of facial expression there, in an almost child-like simplicity and directness. He withdrew, yet he was omnipresent. He allowed, not constrained, them to play, yet he was in complete control.

Then the Eroica. I had hoped that the orchestra would stay with its reduced strings – which took it very close to the size of Beethoven’s orchestra at some early performances – but no, they all came back in. But it turned out that this performance was not about niceties of balance at all; savage interruptions from the timpani (Torsten Schönfeld) or the brass frequently drowned whatever else was going on, and the whole performance was characterised by intense sforzandi, wild syncopations, everything aimed at disruption. After the polished jewel of the Schubert, this music felt like a huge Taoist uncarved block.

It is so hard to convince an audience which knows this piece inside out that they are listening to it for the first time, but that is what Barenboim achieved for me. What impressed me was the craziness of the music. Although it is full of an almost superhuman energy, nothing lasts very long, the music always seems to be changing its mind about what to do with the material, and, as C P E Bach enjoined, no sooner rousing one passion than switching to another. But on a huge scale. Even in the funeral march, the theme never really settles down, trying one harmonisation after another, one continuation after another. In the scherzo, the three horns (of which Beethoven was remarkably proud) erupt into the texture with Olympian violence. The fragmentary, rough surface is even more pronounced in the finale, where the variations are not on a theme but famously on a bass. A bass in search of a theme, like Pirandello’s characters looking for their author. The trying out of one thing after another becomes almost desperate in this movement, and only resolves right at the end in final welter of sound – now we knew why Barenboim wanted all those strings for this work.

One thing above all I carried away from these three concerts by Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle. We were all listening to the work of someone who was deeply, in fact completely, present. That is why, ultimately, the works all felt so new – there was no past, we were all simply there in that moment. That is also why no-one’s mind wandered during these performances of very familiar works. This, at bottom, seems to me Barenboim’s peculiar genius.


Sydney Opera House presents
Concert 3 – Schubert, Symphony no 8 (“Unfinished”) and Beethoven Symphony no 3 (“Eroica”)
Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra

Conductor Daniel Barenboim

Venue: Sydney Opera House
Dates: Concert 3, 27 November 2018
Tickets: from $99

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