To play either of the Brahms piano concertos requires stamina; to play the two in one evening is a feat of endurance for any pianist, especially one with as busy an ‘other’ life as Daniel Barenboim. The 71-year-old Argentinian has his regular conducting commitments with the Staatskapelle and Staatsoper in Berlin, as well as La Scala Milan and the group he co-founded, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, not to mention his many guest appearances with other orchestras. All this may explain why last night’s concert never really caught fire. The pianist coped with most (though not all) of the difficulties in these two lengthy scores, but did not transcend them. Even Gustavo Dudamel failed to raise the level – he marshalled the Staatskapelle dutifully rather than bringing them to anything comparable to the heights they reached on Sunday evening when Barenboim himself was on the podium.

Daniel Barenboim © Monika Rittershaus | Askonas Holt
Daniel Barenboim
© Monika Rittershaus | Askonas Holt

Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor is an odd beast. At one point in its complicated gestation, the composer conceived the first movement as part of a symphony, and there is indeed a symphonic breadth to the work that finally eventuated. Nonetheless, it is the work of a young man in his twenties, and Vladimir Horowitz’s attitude was to play it as ‘Brahms without the beard’: youthful and impetuous. Impetuosity was in short supply in Barenboim’s performance: he went instead for a measured approach, as if pacing himself for the long evening to come. The espressivo second theme in the first movement never had the required bloom of sound, and the virtuosic octaves were a little splashy. There were moments when the somewhat introverted approach had unexpected benefits – one passage sounded positively ethereal. Nonetheless, the lack of muscularity meant the whole thing felt rather flat.

The orchestral opening theme of the second movement had an appropriate vein of steel running beneath the smooth lyricism, with Dudamel keeping the dynamic level and tempo absolutely steady. Barenboim brought out some nice dynamic gradations in the cross-rhythmic (3 vs 2) theme. In the last movement, the alternating entries for soloist and orchestra dovetailed beautifully, the moments of slight uncoordination from the first movement behind them. While the orchestra brought most of the nervous energy to this finale, Barenboim did relax and release more in the closing sections, a minor memory lapse before the D major bassoon theme aside.

Brahms patterned the opening of his Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major after Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto: both begin with alternations of the orchestra and the soloist before the soloist drops out and orchestra takes over with its expected tutti. Unlike Beethoven, Brahms begins in a deceptively quiet fashion, and it is only with the soloist’s third entry that all hell breaks loose. Barenboim went for caution rather than all-out bravura in the notorious jumps leading up to the orchestral resumption, on which many fine performers have come to grief. The positioning of the two groups of violins opposite rather than beside each other made the call-and-response scales during the tutti particularly effective, and overall the orchestra sounded freer than before the interval. The soloist was effective during the diaphanous arpeggio passages, when both hands move rapidly in contrary motion, although I would question the emphasis he gave the anacruses (up-beats) during the marcato passage (no question but this was deliberate, as it matched what he did in the introduction). There were a few places in the development where Barenboim’s staccatos flirted with triviality – at least, I’m used to hearing them played more weightily. Less defensible was the big dynamic bulge at the moment of recapitulation, which rendered crude the magical emergence of the horn motto theme against a fluttering piano backdrop.

Daniel Barenboim and Gustavo Dudamel © Matthias Creutziger | UNITEL
Daniel Barenboim and Gustavo Dudamel
© Matthias Creutziger | UNITEL

The soloist’s opening of the second movement (a scherzo interpolated into the usual three movement concerto layout) felt slow: not just to me, apparently, because Dudamel pushed the tempo considerably during the orchestral passages. Barenboim was having frequent recourse to his handkerchief by this point, once almost getting caught before an entry. The solo cello in the third movement was exquisite: Sennu Laine amped up the vibrato to make it a truly expressive song. The moments of magical stillness in this movement were banished in the lively finale. Barenboim was especially sparing with his pedal during this movement, taking literally Brahms’s staccato marks in the A minor section. The F major merriment was perhaps a touch slow, but it still captured some po-faced humour. At one point, when the music passes from soloist to orchestra, Barenboim dramatically turned towards the players, a gesture which had all the more force given his normally undemonstrative demeanour. Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp major Op.15 no. 2 was the encore, called for (one imagines) more out of general affection for the soloist than particularly warranted on the evening in question.

***11