The cellos and basses intoned their short brooding melody; after an interrogative pause the upper strings entered with a ghostly shimmer. Layered on top came a beautifully shaped oboe melody. Thus began Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, the first item on the third concert of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s Sydney stint. Under Daniel Barenboim’s direction, the first movement was a tense affair: even the major-mode second theme, often a point of blowsy release, was kept under wraps. Particularly marvellous was the mournful duet between violins and violas at the start of the development, which evoked a kind of post-apocalyptic emptiness to begin with but grew inexorably from there. The restraint shown earlier made the points of release feel all the more cathartic, with the Staatskapelle’s trademark fullness of sound making for thrilling climaxes.

Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Peter Adamik

The beginning of the famously meandering second movement exhibited easy melodiousness with an entire absence of artifice. The first episode featured an incredibly quiet but somehow still audible clarinet passage, rendering the moments of drama which followed the more shocking against this backdrop. Perhaps it was the absence of anything else in the first half that made the arrival of the interval after the second movement seem premature. Listeners would certainly have been unable to overlook the ‘unfinished’ nature of Schubert’s symphony. There are plenty of two-movement works that form coherent wholes (in Beethoven’s final piano sonata, the fast first movement and slow second movement form a perfect yin-yang pair), but this is not the case with the Unfinished. It is the musical equivalent of the Belvedere torso sculpture – marvellous but incomplete.

After the interval came the Eroica, a work whose completeness and sureness of narrative arc (most often seen as a metaphor for the life, death and eventual resurrection of a hero) was the perfect counterpoise to the Schubert. One could point out dozens of virtues in the Staatskapelle’s performance of the first movement: the clarity and precision of articulation throughout, the thrilling tutti sounds of the orchestra, the brutality of the climax of the development, and so forth. However, as a whole, it left me bitterly disappointed for one simple reason: it felt too slow. This was less a matter of metronome marks and more one of feel.

For me, the first movement needs to embody a striving, forward-moving quality, and from the opening theme it exuded stolidity rather than conveying a sense of momentum. Beethoven was in his early thirties when he wrote this seminal work, not a reckless youth any more but neither had he reached the portals of middle age. The Eroica marked the emergence of the composer’s ‘heroic’ middle period, a decade where his emotional directness and energy blazed a trail that overshadowed symphonic composition for the rest of the century. Barenboim’s rendition of the first movement felt like a tribute to its elevated status, rather than recapturing the revolutionary impetus that fired the composer.

After this let-down, it would have taken something special to have lifted my mood, and thankfully the Staatskapelle delivered: the funeral march was quite simply sublime. Never have I heard a better rendition live or on record, in fact, rarely have I had a more profound listening experience. The opening was sombre but hinted at the passion that found full outlet later. Exquisite oboe playing at the start was matched by the rest of the woodwind in the major-mode section which followed. The big climax exuded total jubilation, the texture cut dramatically to a thread afterwards. The fugue had an inexorable power to it, and the big A flat pedal sounded with the voice of doom. The final decomposition of the opening melody was a thing of beauty. This hero’s life may not have come up to expectations, but his death more than made up for it.

The third movement saw Barenboim in minimalist mode, barely using his baton at all at the start; nonetheless, the staccato passages at the beginning were performed with scalpel-like precision. The rumbustious joy of the later erruptions was carried through into the trio, where the horns were splendidly full of life and character. The finale begins with a flurry of impetus before Beethoven pares things back and assembles his theme from bare bones. In this rendition pizzicato strings at the start actually struck me as humorous for the first time, and the accretion of new layers in each statement built up beautifully. There was pellucid clarity in the fugal passages, and the slow variation late on felt like a private oasis. Once roused into throbbing life when the triplet accompaniment took over, it felt warm and victorious, with the players’ total commitment patent all the way through to the final energy-filled spurt.