It was Paul Dukas who dismissed Brahms’ music as “too much beer and beard”. He would have had a field day with this concert, which saw Daniel Barenboim play not one, but both piano concertos. Each is longer than any of his symphonies. Performing both in the same concert is folly, yet Barenboim has form. In 2005, he even gave both concertos in the same programme twice in the same weekend at the Barbican. But Barenboim’s desire to emphasise the epic qualities resulted in turgid accounts, not just “beer and beard” but something more sedate, as if Brahms was emerging from his favourite pub, The Red Hedgehog, after a satisfying pint or two.

Daniel Barenboim and Gustavo Dudamel at the RFH © Southbank Centre / Belinda Lawley
Daniel Barenboim and Gustavo Dudamel at the RFH
© Southbank Centre / Belinda Lawley

It's sixty years since Barenboim made his debut in this hall, playing Mozart with the RPO under Josef Krips. His partners in this evening's Brahmsian misadventure were Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Dudamel was also on the podium (with the Staatskapelle Berlin) when they performed this feat in 2014, so he knows how Barenboim likes the concertos to go. The introduction to the Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor is marked Maestoso, yet the Bolívars’ approach was bloated beyond measure, as if proclaiming the end of the world. This shouldn't be a Brahmsian Götterdämmerung, but an arresting opening that bristles with energy. When Barenboim eventually made his entry, he dragged the tempo back even further, hampered by ragged trills. The SBSO’s plush string sound certainly served their masters’ purpose.

The playing of the Adagio was ruminative, Barenboim sometimes resting both hands on the rim of the Barenboim-Maene piano he unveiled here last May, staring off into the middle distance. The notion that slow tempi must equal greatness again marred the finale. At one point, Dudamel was barely beating time at all. The pulse was almost dead, as if the music had flatlined and poor Brahms lay cold on the slab.

Barenboim’s approach was better suited to the Second. Composed 22 years after the bracing majesty of the First, it is more autumnal in nature and the solo horn caressed the opening phrases warmly. Dudamel also uncovered a welcome bit of sinew in the string playing. Barenboim’s approach skirted any playfulness, but was seriously weighty. 

The Allegro appassionato certainly had a passionate sweep, if non allegro, and there was muscle in the orchestral playing. Brahms ironically referred to this movement as “a tiny wisp of a scherzo”; Barenboim rode its stormy waves thunderously. The highlight of the evening was the heartfelt cello solo which opens the Andante third movement, before the tempest resumed. More unbridled joy was required in the finale, which sometimes felt a bit laboured. If fatigue had set in by this point, it was entirely understandable.

The roars of approval and the standing ovation were, I like to think, more for the endeavour of the undertaking rather than the quality of the music-making or the programming. The irony is that Brahms wasn’t all “beer and beard”. There is more vital expression to be found in his concertos, particularly the First, but Barenboim’s performance – albeit a Herculean effort – did nothing to dispel Dukas’ criticism. 

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