How to celebrate a 50th anniversary at Prague Spring? In Daniel Barenboim’s case, it was an opportunity to revisit a personal favorite and touchstone of the Romantic repertoire, and to show what one of the world’s oldest orchestras can do in contemporary hands.

Daniel Barenboim © Prague Spring Festival 2016 | Ivan Malý
Daniel Barenboim
© Prague Spring Festival 2016 | Ivan Malý

Barenboim’s performance with Staatskapelle Berlin came 50 years – to the day – after he made his Prague Spring debut on 15 May 1996, conducting the English Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard in a program of Haydn, Mozart and Purcell. In three festival appearances since with the Orchestre de Paris (1986) and Vienna Philharmonic (2012), he straddled the repertoires that have characterized much of his career – core classical (Mozart, Bruckner) and modern (Boulez, Ravel, Stravinsky).

Bruckner was one of the composers who intrigued Barenboim enough to take up conducting after he started his career as a piano prodigy, and the fascination has never waned. He made complete recordings of the composer’s symphonic cycle with both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic. In 2010 he decided to do it again, this time with Staatskapelle Berlin, which named him “conductor for life” in 2000.

“Ordinarily I prefer to do music I have not recorded previously,” Barenboim said at the time. “But this is a special case. The orchestraʼs great experience with Wagner operas brings a new dimension to Bruckner, who was influenced by Wagner.” Not coincidentally, the project also gave him a new set of downloads for Peral, the all-digital label he co-founded with Universal in an attempt to demonstrate there is still a viable market for classical recordings.

The Wagnerian dimensions of Bruckner’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat major were evident even before the music began, with the oversized orchestra practically spilling off the Obecní dům stage. There had been a short rehearsal a few hours earlier – just 30 minutes, to make adjustments for the hall’s notoriously poor acoustics. Barenboim proved to be as good a technician as he is a musician, fine-tuning a sound noteworthy for its clarity, balance and rich shadings of colors.

Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin © Prague Spring Festival 2016 | Ivan Malý
Daniel Barenboim and Staatskapelle Berlin
© Prague Spring Festival 2016 | Ivan Malý

Conducting without a score, Barenboim crafted the symphony as a study in dynamics, making bold, dramatic declarations with the brass and percussion, then dropping to a whisper with pianissimo solos and lilting woodwinds. The contrast was riveting, especially with his thoughtful use of pauses to create tension and expectation. Befitting an opera orchestra, the music had a strong narrative quality, with the spirit of Wagner evident in everything from the grandiose architecture to the distinctive sound of the horns, which took on remarkable subtleties and variety under Barenboim’s baton.

The baton was used sparingly. Barenboim’s connection with the orchestra is such that after setting the opening tempo for the first and second movements, he let it drop to his side, giving the players free rein for a few bars. His conducting throughout much of the evening was one-handed, with simple gestures like extending an open hand drawing vivid blasts from entire sections of the orchestra. It was an impressive display of musicianship and a level of trust and understanding that few conductors achieve with their players.

Staatskapelle Berlin is noted for the lyricism of its playing, but there were only glimpses of that in this performance. Instead, the emphasis was on creating a monumental wall of sound, in keeping with the monolithic nature of the piece. One might argue for a more moderate approach, building gradually to the overwhelming climax. But Barenboim was able to maintain maximum impact cleanly and precisely, without any rough edges, from the very first crescendo. And the momentum of the music was irresistible, like the roar and tug of high tide pounding ashore.

Whether this ultimately adds anything to the Bruckner canon is debatable. Either way, the performance offered a dazzling demonstration of Barenboim's ability to turn a Romantic staple into a thrilling journey, relying on straightforward choices of dynamics and pacing – and a rare bond he shares with superb group of players.