Berlin Staatskapelle / Daniel Barenboim - Royal Festival Hall, 1 February 2010
And so Daniel Barenboim's brief London residency ended not with a bang but a lecture. He joked, "I'm not going to talk for long because I don't want you to tell friends tomorrow 'I heard Daniel Barenboim last night' and for them to reply 'Really, what did he say?'."
In the end, his introduction to Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra took longer than the work itself, with the Berlin Staatskapelle there to illustrate musically the many appearances of the principal B-A-C-H (B flat, A, C, B natural) theme. Barenboim's talk certainly clarified the structural basis of the work, but the impact was dimmed by an ingratiating and even apologetic tone that insinuated it's OK to find Schoenberg's music ugly and difficult.
A shame because the clarity and urgency of the performance itself, when it came, spoke for itself. It was enough to win anyone over. But Barenboim couldn't stop himself apologising for Schoenberg yet again before launching into a Strauss encore, Unter Donner und Blitz. Barenboim's talks are generally illuminating, and I'd been looking forward to this one, but in retrospect I'd have enjoyed the evening more if he'd kept his gob shut.
At least Barenboim didn't feel any need to build up Beethoven by knocking him down. In the third piano concerto he found grace where others find stolidity, heroism where others find pomp. A work that can sound routine and declamatory came alive. A brief rehearsal extract can be heard here (terrible sound quality I'm afraid, but that's the BBC for you).
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