Daniel Barenboim's Bruckner project

Helen Wallace on Barenboim's stunning Southbank performance

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Daniel BarenboimIt was back in 2002, just after Barenboim had assumed the musical directorship of the Berlin Staatskapelle, that he returned to Beethoven’s sonatas and concertos – to general acclaim. I wasn’t convinced: the band itself performed with vivid authority, but the playing could be pretty rough around the edges. There was a certain amount of bluster and big picture glibness about some of Barenboim’s pianism, too. His genius for grasping the essence of a work was never in doubt, but details were occasionally brushed aside, giving those that were realised to perfection almost too much prominence. He himself admitted at the time that he was finding it increasingly difficult to switch between performing and conducting, and that, with age, he needed more intense periods of practise.

Fast-forward ten years. Barenboim (with yet another celebrated Beethoven series under his belt in 2010) returns for Mozart Piano Concertos and Bruckner’s last three symphonies. The Staatskappelle, with many young players now in its ranks, is transformed: along with the central European warmth and ruggedness, there’s now a honed coherence to its sound. And the maestro – now 70 – has rarely played better.

True, in the first movement of K491, his assertive style occasionally felt strident, more a demonstration to the orchestra, than a fully rounded solo voice, and his first entries were not crystalline. But it wasn’t long before he found a breathtaking tonal beauty in his pianissimo, the strings cloaking him in sheer silken folds. This pellucid pianism reached new heights in a slow movement of glorious subtlety, where he seemed to draw his melody imperceptibly out of silence. He invested the Allegro assai with an arresting sense of mystery, from out of which Beethovenian storms erupted. A sense of the most intimate chamber music was palpable in each variation, particularly that in the jaunty major key, which Barenboim and the wind soloists teased with charming hilarity. I was reminded, at last, of the Barenboim who recorded Schubert Impromptus in Apollonian style all those decades ago.

We were in the hands of a master for a glowing performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. Every movement was expertly paced, every climax precisely achieved, every nuance observed, but never at the expense of a warm, pulsating sense of freedom. A superb cello and horn section led its aspirant opening: in a key with four sharps, that sense of straining higher creates a mesmerising tension, maintained in the C sharp minor second movement. The chorale of tenor horns which opens this is always murky, but there’s something so evocative about their primitive sound, one wouldn’t be without it, and it makes their ‘rescue’ by blazing French horns all the more heroic. Barenboim’s strings were effortlessly seductive in this slow movement, while the trumpets came into their own in a truly dynamic scherzo. He eked all the aching tension out of the extraordinary, chromatically complex harmony in the Finale: C natural has never sounded so menacing an alarm. A packed hall gave a standing ovation: beg, borrow or steal a ticket to the performance of the Ninth Symphony (20 April).