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Barenboim conducts Schönberg & Beethoven

Schönberg Five Orchestral Pieces (1909)
Beethoven Piano Concertos nos 2 & 4

Daniel Barenboim with Berlin Staatskapelle

Royal Festival Hall, London 1 February 2010

Musical Pointers failed to be awarded any press tickets for Barenboim's Royal Festival Hall Beethoven Sonatas series in 2008, but secured a single one for this concert in the current concertos cycle. Meanwhile, however, we have been absorbed with Barenboim as pianist, conductor and educator, for several months on SKY TV and on highly recommended DVDs.

This was Schönberg's night, with a RFH ovation for his Five Pieces originally given their world premiere in London to "noisy disapproval" (Henry Wood Promenade Concert, 1912 - Ernest Newman in Musical Times). Don't skip that - it is fine example of music criticism of the era...

Between two Beethoven concertos, the hugely increased Staatskapelle Berlin (the orchestra of the Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden) demonstrated that in so scrupulously and lovingly prepared a performance it can match any of the more famously "great" international orchestras. Lucidity in the complex textures, and beauty in dissonance, were the hallmarks of a great account of this compact masterpiece, a landmark of the new at the beginning of the last century.

Before, too, it was the enlivening contributions of the orchestra that drew and held attention in the earliest of Beethoven's piano concertos; Barenboim ensured that there was never a dull or lifelessly routine phrase, and several of the orchestral soloists, notably the oboist, excelled. His own contribution at the piano seemed less persuasive, partly because of the acoustics of the RFH from (good) seats at the front of the Rear Stalls.

The fourth concerto, however, seemed to find Barenboim tired and overparted, his own playing on auto-pilot. The piano felt distant and its sound generalised, often an undifferentiated, insufficiently articulated, over-pedalled wash, obliging listeners to rely on their memories of this favourite concerto. The lidless Steinway was apparently provided with a reflector over the strings, but for whom it was helping to enhance the sound was unclear. And, in quieter passages, it was impossible to overlook one of the blights of the Festival Hall and of many other modern concert halls (but not Lucerne's !); a pervasive high-pitched sound probably emanating from the lights? But no matter, the audience reacted to what they wanted to have heard and rose to a standing ovation at the end...

It will be interesting to hear the deferred R3 broadcast of this mixed live experience on BBC R3 4 February and thereafter for a week on R3 Listen Again.

Peter Grahame Woolf

See also Classical Source review: - - the Fourth Piano Concerto was a more fitful affair - - too often the focus lay on the orchestra which performed admirably whereas the solo part became almost a piano obbligato - - too much had a distinctly ad hoc feel to it, Barenboim winging his way through a piece he knows backwards.

AND in Musicweb about the Emperor concerto: "- - the soloist unleashed a series of errors suggestive of a memory lapse. Barenboim is good at covering, but even he could not conceal what had happened, nor could he prevent the orchestra from losing its way. The Emperor really needs a separate conductor – - there was a greater level of general untidiness in his despatch of the solo part too - - there remained much to admire in the concert as a whole, but a standing ovation? It rather suggests that many in the audience are simply experiencing the ‘event’ and barely listening to the performance. [Editor]