The Staatsoper Berlin’s 2017 Festtage got underway with a visit of the Vienna Philharmonic and a characteristic Daniel Barenboim programme. The two Viennese schools – First and Second – were juxtaposed, unapologetically big-boned Mozart symphonies either side Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1.

Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic © Thomas Bartilla
Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic
© Thomas Bartilla

Mozart is too rarely the focus of a modern-instrument symphony orchestra concert in a hall the size of the Philharmonie, and Barenboim showed persuasively that this music can, and arguably more often should, benefit from such an approach. At least, this was certainly the case in a terrific account of the "Haffner" Symphony, which sprung excitingly out of the blocks at a tempo pitched perfectly to allow both spritely élan and imposing grandeur – qualities, along with their characteristic urbanity, that the Vienna Philharmonic offered in abundance. 
At swift tempos in the outer movement, particularly in a finale full of moto perpetuo fizz, a bulky Viennesse string complement (I counted five double basses and 12 first violins) showed that it can manoeuvre with absolute precision. The violins’ articulation of the passagework in the first movement, in particular, was exceptional, whether silkily legato or in tautly-marshalled staccato.

The Andante showed the orchestra at its most cultivated, Barenboim keeping the tempo properly fluid and encouraging a disarmingly gentle sound. Mozart’s Menuets often risk morphing into elephantine waltzes in larger-scale performances, but Barenboim maintained enough bounce and lightness here, and coaxed some deliciously teasing phrases from his players in the Trio.

The orchestra’s sound itself was slightly string-heavy; the wind were often happy to sit back in the texture, and rather boomy timpani occasionly rendered textures a little congested. And these characteristics seem to be exaggerated in the performance of the "Jupiter", for which Barenboim adopted an approach in the grander manner, allowing more flexibility throughout. The tempo went up a notch for the minor-key episodes in the Andante, for example, while the finale’s big fermata was treated to a bizarre ritardando so hugely exaggerated that a young girl in the front row of the choir burst into spontaneous enthusiastic applause.

Elsewhere, though, the conductor’s Grand Manner wasn’t quite matched by grandeur in the playing. This symphony’s opening gesture, unlike that of the "Haffner", felt a little perfunctory, while one often waited in vain for the players to really take a firm grip of the music. Here, too, the reluctance of the wind group to assert themselves against the strings was more noticeable, especially in the Andante. The finale, that final eccentricity notwithstanding, was terrific. It was a fine performance, for sure, but didn’t quite offer the same sense of commitment as the earlier symphony.

Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic © Thomas Bartilla
Daniel Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic
© Thomas Bartilla

Barenboim, on the other hand, clearly offered no option but total commitment from the 15 musicians who stepped up for the Schoenberg. He pushed them forwards at the start, encouraging playing of sinewy intensity that could easily melt into the most disarming lyricism. Above all, though, this was an account that seemed to underline the piece’s position on the threshold, where traces of symphonic certainty attempted to assert themselves in a jittery new world of the uncanny and the uncertain.

That it managed to do this so eloquently was testament to the flexibility and control of Barenboim’s conducting, and the fearless performances from the musicians. Occasionally, as is surely always the danger in a hall this size, the balance risked drowning out some of the strings’ more spidery lines, but this was an outstanding performance.