Daniel Barenboim, then primarily a pianist, last visited Sydney in 1970. He and his wife, Jacqueline du Pré, performed the complete piano and cello sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven at the Sydney Town Hall. They also visited the site of the Sydney Opera house, which opened three years later.
Forty-eight years later, Barenboim returned to Sydney with his orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, to conduct three concerts at the Opera House. The first two comprised the complete symphonies of Johannes Brahms.
Many things have changed since that first visit. The concerts this week took place in a different century and venue, and the talented young pianist of 1970 returned as a wise old septuagenarian conducting one of the finest orchestras in the world. What has not changed is his inquisitive passion about what makes music beautiful and his symbiotic, chamber-music-like relationship with his partners, be it a star cellist or a ninety-piece orchestra.
Performing the Brahms symphonies as an anthology within twenty-six hours offers all kinds of experiences for an audience. It can listen to the cycle as an opulent wash of Romantic orchestral music; take this rare chance to observe the differences between the four works, resulting from chronology and the increasing maturity of the composer; or attend to the minutiae of interpretations in the various movements. I was most impressed by the unity of musical concept, playing style, and the quality of both, from the first powerful unisono orchestral tutti of the cycle on a single, resonant C to its last, full E minor chord. It was not the differences between tempi and moods, dynamics and emotions, that appealed the most, but the unbroken attention to the flow of musical energy and its changes throughout the two evenings.
Barenboim, unlike most present-day conductors, believes in long-term musical relationships. While it was not unusual for icons such as Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam, Georg Szell in Cleveland, and Herbert von Karajan in Berlin to create a strong bond and recognisable musical identity with their orchestras over decades of training collaboration, this is seldom the case today. Eugene Ormandy helped his orchestra develop the legendary ‘Philadelphia sound’ over forty years. How many orchestras would be able to boast of similar achievement today?
The Staatskapelle Berlin under Barenboim might be one of the few. This orchestra used to be rightly famous in East Berlin, run by the communist government in the post-World War II era. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it inevitably slipped to second place behind the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Barenboim has been the orchestra’s general music director since 1992. The fruits of this relationship were clearly demonstrated in these concerts.
One feature was the way in which Barenboim and his supremely disciplined orchestra allowed the music to breathe. A certain freedom of the tempo, which musicians call rubato, became a self-evident part of the performance, as for example in the deliciously slight hesitation of the opening bar of the Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98.
The collective tone of the woodwind players was mesmerising. Individual solos, such as the oboe theme in the first half of the Andante sostenuto movement of the Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68, stood out not only for its outstanding musicality but also for an exquisite and highly individual tone colour. Of the numerous horn solos throughout the cycle, the stentorian Alphorn solo impressed particularly with its resonance and impeccable control in the same symphony’s final movement
Barenboim also inspired his musicians to produce unique sounds, when two or more instruments or groups played in unison. Seldom do cellos and horns blend so well, creating not two different tones but a joint new one, as they did in the final movement’s triplet theme in the Symphony No.3 in F major, Op.90.
The string section – the backbone of most Romantic orchestral compositions – played with perfect unison. Their excellent balance was helped by a long row formed by the eight double basses in the back behind the winds and brass (a customary seating in some of the Viennese orchestras). Thus they directly faced the audience, and their well-controlled sound came through without the hindrance of being seated on the side. The clarity of sound was nothing short of amazing within the string sections; the middle voices remained light, never cluttering the velvety texture of the melodies. This was particularly obvious in the Allegro con brio movement of the Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.73.
Their always warm and unified sound notwithstanding, a rare achievement of the Staatskapelle Berlin is that individual players are constantly audible – not only the wind instruments but also the strings. While orchestras around the world often aim to achieve a homogenous sound within sections, there was a pleasing flexibility in a collective sound that was composed of recognisably individual elements.
Barenboim appeared to have counted on that flexibility. While he gave his musicians latitude, he maintained supreme control over the flow of the music. With his left arm often stretched out, he indicated long musical lines or delicately adjusted the balance between the various sections. He often focused on a melody while also accentuating an accompanying voice, only to emphasise another one a few notes later, drawing the listener’s attention to different voices. In this densely written, highly contrapuntal music, where several voices are playing most of the time, this became an intellectual exercise for the discerning audience, for many secondary melodies (always there, but rarely noticeable) gained much welcome importance. The feeling was akin to looking at an old, dusty painting after a thorough cleaning.
Barenboims’s holistic reading of these compositions, based on meticulous observation of all the instructions in the score, revealed them in a new light. It was a less dramatic approach than even Barenboim’s own first recording of the set from 1993. The myriad alterations distinguishing it from the traditional perception of these symphonies were mostly minute, but they altered the sound of the symphonies and rewarded the capacity audience of the Concert Hall with an unusually rich performance of all four Brahms symphonies.
Daniel Barenboim conducting Staatskapelle Berlin was performed in the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, from 25–27 November 2018.
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