This concert brought together Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu and the Berlin Staatskapelle: its single announcement brought a capacity crowd into Salle Pleyel. The programme consisted of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, Op.58 and a work not often played in Paris: Edward Elgar’s Symphony no. 2 in E flat major, Op.63. Seeing as the Parisian audience isn’t renowned for its curiosity, you won’t go far wrong if you figure that what filled the house was Lupu, Barenboim and the Beethoven rather than the Elgar.

Daniel Barenboim © Julien Mignot - Salle Pleyel
Daniel Barenboim
© Julien Mignot - Salle Pleyel

Beethoven’s fourth concerto forms a bridge between his three earlier concerti, steeped as they are in 18th century music, and the fifth, which is firmly rooted in the 19th century and a style that is uniquely Beethoven’s. Two centuries after its composition, the originality of the fourth continues to astonish. The initial exposition by solo piano of the first movement theme combines with the central second movement, filled with engaging contrasts interspersed with previously unknown moments of silence, to make this a quite fascinating work, in spite of the closing rondo being in more classical form and style. As always, Radu Lupu arrives at the piano with a phlegmatic gait, makes himself comfortable not on a stool but on a chair: he rests on the seatback, his hands outstretched towards the keyboard.

Even before the hall falls silent, he starts to play the first theme in an attractive mezzo piano – with presence, elegance and grace. Immediately, this interpretation is marked as being one of the highest artistic level. Daniel Barenboim, exceptional musician that he is, joins his old friend (they have been playing together for over forty years) to attain the same peaks of performance. His conducting is vivid, luminous, transparent, multifaceted and elegant. This evening, of course, he’s in charge of the extraordinary Berlin Staatskapelle, the orchestra of whom he has been the loved and respected principal conductor for over twenty years. While it’s obvious that Radu Lupu’s playing of this concerto is giving us all a lesson in piano and especially in musicality, Daniel Barenboim is offering his co-performer far more than mere accompaniment. The orchestra is sometimes racing around, sometimes light of touch, always elegant and precise, always with a separate character of its own: a constant delight to the ear. It’s rare to hear an orchestral performance at this level: the Berlin Staatskapelle play with such perfection, such nobility, such clarity and subtlety that they immediately make you think of the Berlin Philharmonic – even if the double bass sound isn’t quite as rounded. None the less, the ensemble sound is sumptuous: noble and measured, with incredible string legato, pizzicati so impeccably weighted as to astound, especially in an exceptional second movement in the course of which the dialogue between piano and orchestra takes on a character filled with suspense. In the third movement rondo, what remains is syncopations, arpeggios, trills and contrasts; the piano and orchestra finally blend into a veritable sonic feast, rendered here with all the required elegance, energy and rhythmic impulse. This is great art and it earns thunderous applause.

Radu Lupu plays his first encore: being a passionate and generous artist, it’s Brahms’ Intermezzo, Op.117. Daniel Barenboim, listening from amidst the orchestra, is the first to show his enthusiastic appreciation of this timeless interpretation. Next, with a little prompting from Barenboim, Lupu gives an ever more besotted audience Franz Schubert’s Scherzo no.1 in B flat major, D 593, a work redolent of Beethoven, luminous and dance-filled.

In France, the music of English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934) rarely receives pride of place in the concert hall, his second symphony being no exception to the rule. So this second half of the concert gave us a rare occasion to discover this music, brought to us by performers of the highest quality. We’re all aware that Barenboim is intimately linked to Elgar’s music, especially the cello concerto, which he has often played and recorded, most famously with Jacqueline Du Pré (in 2012, Barenboim also conducted Elgar’s Choral masterpiece The dream of Gerontius, which it would be great to hear in Paris one day). Dedicated to King Edward VII, who died during its composition, the Symphony no. 2 in E flat major, Op.63 was eventually published with the dedication “to the memory of His late Majesty”. Although the work occasionally reminds one of Richard Strauss or Richard Wagner, this is a symphony dissimilar from any other. Its construction is traditional (four movements marked allegro, larghetto, presto and moderato e maestoso) and it sounds very much romantic – at any rate, it does so under Barenboim’s baton. He conducts it with passion and energy, knowing how to vary the mood and be equally successful in a majestic passage like the opening, a dark one like the larghetto, which is a sort of funeral march, a virtuosic one like the rondo, or the fevered finale. The Berlin Staatskapelle, swelled to full strength for this work, seems just as much at ease with this music as Daniel Barenboim himself. Every moment of the orchestra’s playing is luxurious as they give us beauty and richness of sound in the tutti, total clarity in a work whose orchestration is highly complex, and perfect rendering of the work’s contrasts.

At the end of the concert, Barenboim apologises for the lack of an encore (“how could one, after such a finale,” he jokes) and says a few words about the many happy memories that he and his musicians have of Salle Pleyel. With humour and sympathy, he invites the evening’s audience to embrace the Philharmonie [Paris’s new concert hall, notably further out of town than Salle Pleyel] when it opens in January 2015. “Make the effort, and you will be rewarded!”. Here is a man who has confidence in the Paris Philharmonie. In a few months time, we will find out if his words have been listened to as much as his music!

Translated from French by David Karlin