Bruckner wrote to the conductor, Artur Nikisch, before the first performance of his 7th Symphony in 1885 that there are many important tempo changes that should be observed, but not marked in the score. Daniel Barenboim has taken Bruckner’s advice to heart and his performance was, for the most part, masterly in its use of flexible tempi. It was a joy to hear the symphony set off at a true Allegro moderato - none of the indulgent Adagio that often attends this wonderful dream theme (this melody apparently came to Bruckner in a dream). The underlying pulse of the first movement was steady throughout, its three themes being less contrasted than happens in performances that start slowly and speed up. The great crescendo at the end of the second subject was beautifully moulded with a generous ritardando at its end, the jaunty little third theme falling quite naturally in its wake. One hesitates to speak of ‘transitions’ in Bruckner - though he can do them when he wishes, witness that from the first to second theme in the Adagio - but throughout the performance the negotiation of the passage between Bruckner’s architectural blocks was always beautifully handled.

Daniel Barenboim with the Staatskapelle Berlin © Monika Rittershaus
Daniel Barenboim with the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Monika Rittershaus

The climax of the symphony, and indeed of the evening, was the glorious third appearance of the main theme of the Adagio, capped on this occasion by the controversial cymbal clash and triangle (someone has written ‘not valid’ on the score, but experts cannot be sure whose writing it is!). Baranboim’s pacing of the build-up and delivery of this visionary moment was magnificent. And there then followed the dirge for Wagner tubas leading, which the horns take up in an outcry that mixes bereaved pain and noble aspiration - never have I heard it played so beautifully, so faultlessly, as the hornists of this wonderful orchestra played this evening. The night after the second performance, under Hermann Levi in Leipzig 1885, after a performance of Die Walküre, the orchestral horns and tubas played this dirge three times over in the darkened empty opera house, for Bruckner, in memory of his musical hero, Wagner, who had died during the composition of this symphony. Previously Barenboim had given the main theme an unsettled urgency in its second appearance, propelling the music forward, which made the resolution and magisterial calm behind the climax all the more effective. The lyrical, song-like second theme of the Adagio, a close relative of the second theme of the Adagio of Beethoven’s Ninth, was of heart-melting tenderness as it repeatedly floated heavenwards.

The Scherzo is marked to be played, ‘Sehr schnell’ - very fast - the only time Bruckner asks for something more than fast, but Barenboim opted for a slightly steadier pace, which allowed many details and inflections to appear or be imposed. It was all done with great care, nothing taken for granted: the first appearance of the ‘cock-crow’ trumpet theme played mf, its repetition mp, as though it were an echo, and in the trio a wonderful little counter-phrase on the third horn rose up to greet us. The finale is one of Bruckner’s most intriguing and attractive movements, the three themes presented, a short development, and then the three themes played in reverse order so we are back where we began - and with the first theme being a variant of the opening of the whole symphony, we are back where the whole symphony began. But it’s important that the movement be experienced as worthy of its predecessors, otherwise the balance of the symphony is thrown askew. Barenboim, to his great credit, took the movement very seriously, eliciting superb and deeply-moving playing of the chorale-like second subject, with contrasting dynamics for each paragraph, and taken at an unusually slow tempo, enabling the music to tap into the gravity of utterance that informs the first two movements. He retained the slow tempo for most of the development, an interpretative decision that one might question as it meant that we were treated to a strangely ponderous inversion of the first theme which in other hands is light and chirpy. Nevertheless, the movement worked well, and the return to the quick opening tempo for the first theme recapitulation and coda had all the joy, urgency and finality one could wish for.

The triangle and cymbal player just have one moment in this edition of the symphony - at the climax of the Adagio, and it’s their privilege to sit the rest out and listen. Barenboim presumably thinks playing the triangle is not enough, so he provides the triangle player with a lone timp, and in the timpani roll, a long dramatic crescendo-diminuendo that accompanies the first part of the first movement coda, this single timp began, to be joined a bar later by the regular timpanist, the pair of them providing a sort of stereo spread behind the orchestral texture.

The symphony had been preceded by a performance of Mozart’s big C minor piano concerto, Barenboim the soloist and conductor, the keyboard facing the audience. It was not a performance of muscular gravity that made one think of the path to Beethoven, but a gentle, mysterious interpretation, full of lyricism and tender beauty. It came into its own in the slow movement, where Barenboim’s pianism took us deeper and deeper into the still centre of the music, in eloquent dialogue with this orchestra’s superlative wind band.

It is a wonderful orchestra, and Barenboim’s habit of entering into conversation with individual players, both musical and, during applause, verbal, gives the infectious impression that they are really enjoying themselves. The audience rewarded them with almost complete silence (except for embellishment of Mozart’s Larghetto by a mobile phone ringing away in the front of the rear stalls) and a long, well-deserved standing ovation at the end.

****1