Classical music has long been obsessed by a triumvirate of Bs: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. The last of these formed the basis for another Germanic trilogy of Bs which thrilled Sydney last night: Brahms, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. Overshadowed internationally by the Berliner Philharmoniker (their West-Berlin counterparts), the Staatskappelle is an outstanding orchestra which provides pit musicians for the Staatsoper and also performs regular concerts. Having reviewed both concert and operatic performances by the orchestra under the same conductor a few years ago, I came with high expectations. These were not disappointed.

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Peter Adamik

This three-concert Sydney series is as pronounced a vote in favour of the traditional symphonic canon as one is likely to find: Brahms’s four symphonies plus iconic symphonies by Beethoven and Schubert. No overtures, no concertos and, on the basis of last night, no encores either. Pairing Symphonies nos. 1 and 2 of Brahms on a single programme is almost indigestibly rich fare: their emotional power is channelled through unusually dense motivic logic which demands much of its listeners. When these works first appeared, critics regarded Brahms as having brought the complexity of chamber music into the public genre of the symphony. Another potential problem concerned the ordering: after the magnificent struggle-to-victory arc of the First, one wondered how the more lyrical Second would fare.

The first half opened with the plangent slow introduction to Brahms’ much delayed Symphony no. 1 in C minor (he was 43 when it first appeared), and from the very first notes the rich string sound was thrilling. The phrasing was sculpted to perfection, creating a feeling of breathless anticipation just before the launch of the Allegro proper. There were no wasted movements from Barenboim: at times he dropped his hands, or barely moved the baton. Whenever the orchestra needed encouragement, however, his sweeping gestures brought an immediate response. The first movement had an irresistible momentum to it, leaving the listener with a new appreciation of its power but also its melancholy.

The middle two movements have long been considered a little lightweight by comparison with those bookending the First Symphony, and Barenboim wisely did not inflate them beyond their proportions. The sense of narrative pacing was uncanny: the calm swells at the start of the Andante sostenuto were not overdone, but later on a delicate theme could surge suddenly into a passionate statement before subsiding quickly again. The pizzicato accompaniment in the third movement provided a backdrop for charming clarinet solo, and overall this provided a few moments of relief for the listeners.

The Staatskapelle Berlin in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall
© Peter Adamik

Only the shortest of breaks was taken between the sunny ending of the third movement and the start of the finale, so that the silence of concentration in the hall was unbroken. The dark, searching opening eventually gave way to the glorious Alphorn solo, its heroic contour delivered with power and panache (and an entire absence of split of notes). The brass chorale which followed was truly mellow, and once the main theme got going, redemption was in sight. The final breakthrough to a triumphant C major coda felt almost brutal in its rejoicing. 

After the drama of the First Symphony, the opening movement of the Second, though glorious in itself, risks seeming a little underwhelming. Barenboim was seemingly aware of this, and wisely avoided overcooking the drama. If anything, he steered in the opposite direction: the tempo was a shade on the slow side, and he kept the emotional and sonic lid on for most of the exposition, only letting rip towards end. This idea of end-weightedness is a good description of his approach to the symphony as a whole.

The second movement showcased the gorgeous sound of the cellos at the beginning; indeed, the whole Staatskapelle reached new heights in the way they coloured the sound here, from the delicacy of the off-beat waltz to the sensitive woodwind dialogue. After the sublimity of this slow movement the third movement introduced a note of rustic simplicity, during which Barenboim leaned against the podium, apparently enjoying the woodwind and cello partnership as much as the audience. The move between this and the breathless Mendelssohnian Scherzo was effortless.

The finale was another object lesson in sonic control: it starts very quietly, but somehow still was full of colour and nuance. Once the forte was reached, Barenboim gave the musicians their head and a torrent of exuberance was unleashed. The almost unanimous standing ovation at the end was a testimony to how compellingly these well-known masterpieces had been delivered.