The Staatskapelle Berlin are coming to the end of seven years of itinerancy as renovations to the Staatsoper on Berlin’s Unter den Linden draw to completion – their first performance in the renovated theatre will be on 3 October. In what was billed as the end of their current season, the Staatskapelle brought a showcase programme to the Berlin Philharmonie under chief conductor Daniel Barenboim (although a repeat run of their acclaimed Schubert cycle in the new Pierre Boulez Saal is still to come). With it, the orchestra made a case for themselves as one of the best ensembles performing today.

Daniel Barenboim © Peter Adamik
Daniel Barenboim
© Peter Adamik

Firstly, however, the small matter of a major new work by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Deep Time. With this piece, the composer draws a continuity with two earlier large-scale works: The Triumph of Time (1972), his first major orchestral piece which was based on the engraving of the same name by Pieter Breughel the Elder, and Earth Dances (1986), a geologically inspired work of elemental power.

Deep Time therefore forms the completion of a triptych of orchestral works. It refers to both previous pieces in its title, which is both temporal and geological in reference: writer John McPhee used the phrase “deep time” in his 1981 book Basin and Range to refer to the incomprehensibly large life span of natural phenomena such as rock. Here, Birtwistle’s continuing fascination with processes of change and the primeval are manifestly evident.

Throughout the piece, Birtwistle builds a craggy formation in sound, stony-faced and impenetrable, through a constant and gradual process of evolution in which musical objects transform and collide, often with seismic power. Nestled among this harsh landscape are moments of lucidity and transparency that stick out like diamonds: lyrical string melodies and mellifluous soprano saxophone (an instrument used to a similar effect in The Triumph of Time).

The Staatskapelle brought clarity and technical mastery to Birtwistle’s complex and layered music. Deep Time is a difficult piece that, like much of the composer’s work, demands further investigation. The high complexity of Deep Time was aeons apart from the rest of the evening’s programme. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor is a hot-blooded, emotionally charged work written when the composer was just 18. Stepping in for an ill Lang Lang, Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin had big shoes to fill. However, Daniel Barenboim takes no prisoners, and launched into the opening fanfare when the pianist had barely taken his seat.

Kozhukin’s playing was robust and hard-edged and lent serious weight to this early work. Yet even the greatest virtuoso would have struggled to compete against Barenboim and the Staatskapelle at the top of their game. The ensemble was electrifying from the off: the tutti passages exploded like firecrackers, the brass was exhilarating, the woodwind sparkling, and the strings oh-so-luxuriant. This band offered a stupendous racket, heart-in-mouth pianissimo and everything in between. The work’s rousing conclusion was greeted with a chorus of bravos.

The evocative and colouristic soundscapes of Debussy’s Nocturnes are familiar concert stalwarts. Under Barenboim’s baton, it was as if we were hearing these works for the very first time. Never have I heard Nuages, the first movement, played at such a daringly slow tempo and with such a sense of stillness and calm, phrases threaded together into an extended, ethereal melody that seemed to stall time. Yes, the same approach didn’t quite work for the final movement, Sirènes, but Barenboim’s occasional interpretive eccentricities can be forgiven for his moments of real illumination.

Finishing the programme, Ravel’s Boléro is the ultimate orchestral showpiece. With the snare drum’s relentless march propelling the iconic repeated melody from infinitesimal pianissimo to exuberant fortissimo, the piece almost conducts itself. To leave the conductor’s podium half way through and take a seat amongst the orchestra is just showing off. It was as if Barenboim was saying that his band is so perfect, so finely tuned, that there is no bettering them. He may well be right.