Last night’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall brought together three of the biggest names in classical music, performing two works that are somewhat more mid range in popularity within the repertoire. The Berlin Staatskapelle is one of Germany’s best orchestras, Daniel Barenboim a revered conductor, but it was the rare presence of Martha Argerich at the piano that made this concert a sell-out, with the rapturous welcome Argerich received confirming the high expectations in the hall.

Martha Argerich © Belinda Lawley
Martha Argerich
© Belinda Lawley

Since Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major starts with a long orchestral opening, Argerich fans were made to wait some while before her first notes, but this gave the audience a chance to appreciate some of the exceptional qualities of the Berlin Staatskapelle. The strings produce a full-bodied, lustrous sound, while giving each phrase a clearly defined dynamic contour. The playing is precise, but there’s nothing metronomic about it: whether over a short or a long phrase, sharply accented or legato, we hear the music rise and fall with absolute togetherness. The woodwind solos shine above the strings, and when the brass joins in, they do so without individual prominence: what we hear is a rich blend – almost like listening to an organ.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 is a work in which the composer is seeking to find his individual voice. The basic style of much of the work is that of late Mozart, but the work  is interspersed throughout with material that Mozart would never have written, with drive, fire and departure from convention that are unmistakably Beethoven’s own. Argerich followed this stylistic variation closely: the Mozartian passages were played with classical refinement and delicacy, contrasting with the power that she switched on at intervals. As expected, she showed technical ability out of the very top drawer: within a longer phrase, a rapid ornament would be articulated with perfect evenness ending sharply in precisely the right place to give emphasis and join the orchestra while flowing naturally from the preceding notes. The same held for Beethoven’s long, rippling runs: the timing of her playing is of the utmost precision. And Argerich produces a particularly fine diminuendo, able to bring the piano sound down to a near whisper without losing shape.

Barenboim and Argerich joined forces on the piano to give us a generous encore in the shape of a Schubert duo played with grace and refinement. Yet for all my admiration, I found it difficult to share in the torrent of adulation with which Argerich’s performance was greeted. I’m in no doubt that I was witnessing pianistic excellence of the highest order. But while my intellect was engaged throughout, it was only in parts of the slow movement that the music touched my heart.

Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben ("A Hero’s Life") is a fine display of orchestral versatility, written in 1898 for a large orchestra and using a broad variety of instrumental effects and textures that points the way towards the music of the 20th century. The self-aggrandising nature of the work may sit uncomfortably (in spite of Strauss’s equivocation on the subject, the "hero" is pretty clearly Strauss himself), but you have to admire his range of tonal colour. And the Berlin Staatskapelle exploited that range to the full.

As a conductor, Strauss is said to have been very economical in his movement – a flick of the baton here, a swift hand gesture there – and Barenboim is similar, with very small motions bringing forth large waves of sound. If everything is going well, he sometimes stops conducting altogether, only seeming to become really animated if he’s not getting quite what he wants from the orchestra. Which, in all honesty, did not happen often. Strauss’ opening statement of the hero’s theme was produced with bombast, although this was one occasion where the definition of instruments became a shade muddy. But we moved to the woodwind chattering representing his critics, which was pin-sharp and full of humour, with wonderfully lush legato strings rising out of the chatter. Concertmaster Wolfram Brandl was in splendid form on the extended solo violin cadenzas, trumpet fanfares were strong in the battle scene, we had real rapture in the fifth movement and an exciting Wagnerian finale.

As in the first half of this concert, Ein Heldenleben wasn't catapulted into the list of works that really touch my soul. But it provided a wonderful showcase for the qualities of a remarkable orchestra.