Berlin Staatskapelle / Daniel Barenboim - Royal Festival Hall, 31 January 2010
The second of Daniel Barenboim's four Beethoven concerts at the Royal Festival Hall was capped with a near-unanimous standing ovation. But what exactly was it acknowledging? Probably Barenboim's quasi-superstar status as much as the performance itself, but the fact is that the former enabled the latter - a brave, bold and often risky assault on the daunting Emperor Concerto that no other performer on earth could have got away with.
Fistfuls of misplaced notes rendered the bravura opening recognisable only by rhythm; pedal abuse couldn't quite smooth over jagged runs and gap-toothed arpeggios; a memory lapse at the start of the final movement almost brought the whole thing crashing to a halt. But who cared whether Barenboim could play all the right notes in the right order in a performance this rivetingly alive?
Here and there the Berlin Staatskapelle dutifully reproduced a few carefully-tutored corners pencilled into their scores. Strings dropped to a whisper or swelled to a neatly arced crescendo, just so. But mostly they, like Barenboim, were flying by the seat of their pants, flexing with his unpredictable rubato, snapping crisply to his abrupt tempo shifts. Intuitive though their mutual understanding was, it sometimes seemed the orchestra were hanging on in there in spite of Barenboim's presence rather than because of it. Playing and conducting at the same time is not easy, demonstrably so in this case. Barenboim's struggle was heroic and it rescaled this titanic and sometimes bombastic work down to human dimensions.
The first half's precisely weighted and balanced Verklärte Nacht was a well-judged counterpoise. The programming for this series may look simple, but it's anything but thrown together. Carefully spun-out phrases and neatly bound forms made sense of the work's wilder details. Nothing was arbitrary. The responsive Berlin Staatskapelle strings offered colour and substance to Barenboim's clear and compellling narrative.If it wasn't quite as transporting an experience as the previous night's Pelléas, that's probably in the nature of the work itself.