After Beethoven, and Beethoven and Schoenberg, Daniel Barenboim's latest project at the South Bank Centre features another 'B', albeit one whose centrality in the repertory is still not quite secure: Bruckner. In three concerts, he and his Staatskapealle Berlin are presenting his final three symphonies, and in this first one the Seventh was coupled with Mozart's C-minor piano concerto, No. 24. As a demonstration of the conductor's inspirational hold on his players, this was an impressive event. As a demonstration of his grasp on the grand paragraphs of the Bruckner, it was often compelling. And, in the drama and thrust brought to the symphony, we were constantly reminded that this orchestra and conductor spend a great deal of their time in the pit of the Staatsoper in Berlin (or rather, during the Staatsoper's renovation, at the Schilllertheater), and that a great deal of that time is spent performing Wagner.
The overriding sense—in telling contrast to recent performances I've witnessed by the Staatskapelle's higher-profile neighbours, the Berliner Philharmoniker—was of music-making united by an overriding, all-important sense of purpose. Instrumental niceties were subordinate, the occasional minor fluffs entirely immaterial. The result was Bruckner playing that was irresistibly vivid and involving, shorn of unnecessary portentousness and presented with clear, apparently instinctive musical logic. And the sheer luxurious bulkiness of the Staatskapelle's sound was overwhelming: the strings glossy, the brass forthright and warm, the woodwind characterful.
Barenboim's tempos were fluid but never sounded rushed, and the work's climaxes came across as both organic and well-planned. There were some nice details, too, such as the weighting of the bass line as we started the build-up to the Adagio's final climax, while the finale has rarely made so much sense, with even an exaggerated pause towards its close—in which Barenboim held the audience in the palm of his hand—unable to interrupt its momentum. In short, this was the sort of Bruckner playing one hears too rarely; whether those attending the next two concerts will tire of its broad-brush character, though, and long for more finely etched detail will have to be seen.
The first half's Mozart was perhaps more problematic, and here, on a purely superficial level, Barenboim's fingers seemed to take a little time to warm up. Similarly, the interpretation took some time to find its feet, vacillating at first between lightness and an almost Brucknerian intensity in some of the tuttis—that leading into the first-movement cadenza, with the horns blazing out their lines in a long, loud legato seemed to go well beyond the standard Beethovenian label applied to this concerto.
The final two movements, however, were a delight. Barenboim hit upon just the right balance of lyricism and assertiveness in the Allegretto, phrasing exquisitely and managing to mix a sense of chamber-music intimacy with snatches of symphonic intensity. He was helped greatly here and in the finale by his wind players, in particular, who were outstanding in the Harmonie-band moments. The finale managed both playfulness and sometimes overwhelming, unexpected power.
This was Mozart in unashamedly Romantic garb, then, but without any of the staidness of some traditional performances. It could be a bit rough and ready, too, but, with a forceful personality at its heart concerned with communicating the music's drama, the results were entirely persuasive.
By Hugo Shirley