In a short address before the start of this concert, the Berlin Musikfest’s artistic director, Winrich Hopp, underlined what an achievement it was to have made the main hall of Philharmonie Covid-compliant. A day after the opening of the Berlin Philharmonic’s season, this was the festival’s first orchestral concert. Such events, Hopp suggested, were a necessary statement of intent not to let culture, which should be at the beating heart of any civilised society, give in in the face of such challenges; and to let culture, particularly on a day where the German capital had seen protests against the government’s handling of the situation, lead the way responsibly.

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin © Monika Karczmarczyk | Berliner Festspiele
Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Monika Karczmarczyk | Berliner Festspiele

Nevertheless, at this, the first indoor full-orchestral concert I’d attended since the start of lockdown, it was clearer than ever what those challenges would be. Any feeling of celebration was tempered by the sheer emptiness of the Philharmonie 2,400-seat hall, where every other row was left empty, and where only one seat in every four or five of the occupied rows were filled.

There was no way this was ever going to feel like a normal concert, and it was no surprise that Daniel Barenboim, rarely a musician to offer business as usual, produced something remarkable. The programme, comprising Mozart final three symphonies, is something of a favourite of his, and here, with some judicious – and not so judicious – jettisoning of repeats it was made to fit into the nominal interval-free running time of 90 minutes. 

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin © Monika Karczmarczyk | Berliner Festspiele
Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Monika Karczmarczyk | Berliner Festspiele

The Staatskapelle Berlin, with a generous complement of strings spread out to cover the whole Philharmonie stage, wasted no time in showing us what we’d been missing. Here was an orchestral sound of glorious lucidity and crystalline fluidity, textures clear and transparent, wind playing of immaculate blend and eloquence. Barenboim, for his part, seemed to be rediscovering the music for himself, revelling anew in its beauties and the pleasure hearing his great orchestra again.

As such, the slow introduction to the Symphony in E flat, K543 was unusually broad, and made me think, as never before, of the introduction of Haydn’s Creation: this performance felt, paradoxically, like an act both of assertion and discovery. The emphasis was on structure, both in the introduction and the following Allegro: details in the strings often felt less important than the harmonies traced in long, sustained wind lines; dissonances had roots extending deep beneath the music’s surface.

The Andante was tender and lyrical, as if Barenboim was falling in love with it again for the first time. The Minuet was unexpectedly swift, although it was a shame we had to do without its return after the babbling clarinets of the Trio. The finale, similarly without repeat, had an irresistible deftness and sense of joy.

The Staatskapelle Berlin © Monika Karczmarczyk | Berliner Festspiele
The Staatskapelle Berlin
© Monika Karczmarczyk | Berliner Festspiele

The performance of the G minor symphony was even better – indeed, perhaps the finest I’ve heard live. The opening Molto allegro was swift and urgent, resolutely elemental rather than ornamental, with the contrasts between implacability and lyricism more tangible than ever. The Andante, again unexpectedly flowing in tempo, was distinguished by some of the most eloquent wind playing you’ll ever hear. The Minuet was weighty without ever feeling heavy, and the finale thrillingly dramatic.

Maybe the circumstances had informed the interpretation of the Jupiter, which seemed for once less sure of itself, a little reticent even. Again taking a swift tempo, Barenboim underplayed the grandeur of the opening Allegro vivace. The violins were noticeably reluctant to dig into their lines at first, even though the balance, for once, favoured strings ahead of woodwind in the development section. The Andante was warm and flexible, the Minuet sturdy and the finale exhilarating, marred only by a slightly botched slamming of the brakes at the fermata before the final rush to the close. And the final chords? As with the final gestures in the preceding works, they had more than a hint of the question mark about them.

****1