When Daniel Barenboim announced in January that he was stepping down as Generalmusikdirektor of the Staatsoper Berlin after a marked deterioration in his health over the past year, he was flooded with affection. Vienna’s Musikverein was awash with the same sort of deluge last night as he returned to the Großer Saal with the Staatskapelle Berlin, along with one of his oldest friends, Martha Argerich. Sadly, the ovation can only have been to thank and acknowledge a distinguished career, for the performance itself was anything but distinguished. 

The Staatskapelle Berlin in the Musikverein
© Dieter Nagl, courtesy of Musikverein Wien

Frail, shuffling his way to the platform, Barenboim now looks a shadow of his former self. Conducting from a seat, his beat was minimal, his cueing deliberate. For much of Pierre Boulez’ Livre pour cordes, his head was buried deep in the score. The Staatskapelle strings sounded silky and rounded in tone, with admirable clarity in the various solo lines, but at nearly 20 minutes (the composer himself took under 11), the pacing was glacial. 

The appearance of Martha Argerich failed to pep Barenboim up. A non-adjusting piano stool drew an exasperated shrug from the pianist who launched into Liszt’s First Piano Concerto at a very different tempo to Barenboim, causing a clumsy head-on collision that seemed to unnerve her. The years have been kinder to Argerich and there are still glimmers of her mercurial prowess. Some of the infelicities here – an unsteady trill, a lack of playfulness – could be put down to Barenboim’s sluggish tempi, but there were several wrong notes too. Shepherding her childhood friend to the piano stool, the pair played Bizet’s Petit mari, petite femme as a four-hands encore, halting, but touching, in a pathetic sense. It’s difficult to watch our heroes diminished. 

Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Dieter Nagl, courtesy of Musikverein Wien

Frailty dipped into perversity in the Symphonie fantastique. The artist at the centre of Berlioz’ hallucinatory masterpiece has poisoned his mind with opium; here, it sounded as if he’d overdosed on sleeping tablets. A symphony that usually takes 52-53 minutes staggered listlessly to the 65-minute mark. The Rêveries – Passions of the first movement lurched and lunged, punctuated by Brucknerian pauses. The Valse was leaden, the Scène aux champs comatose. At least the March to the Scaffold felt inexorable at Barenboim’s tempo, the brass Dies irae chants in the Witches’ Sabbath suitably grim. 

It’s important to stress that the Staatskapelle’s playing was almost beyond reproach. Eight double basses lined up at the rear of the platform anchored the strings admirably and the woodwind soloists – especially Matthias Glander (clarinet) – played with character. They were just the foot soldiers, merely following orders. A mutiny would have been welcome.