London has been fortunate to host two great Berlin orchestras exploring repertoire unfamiliar to them in recent months. In February, the Berliner Philharmoniker dipped its toes into icy Sibelian waters, while this evening the Staatskapelle ventured onto Elgar’s Malvern Hills. Both were in safe hands, led by guides familiar with the symphonic terrain. Sir Simon Rattle learnt his Sibelius from Paavo Berglund, while Daniel Barenboim’s five decades experience conducting Elgar were acknowledged at the end of the concert, when he was awarded the Elgar Society Medal. While the Philharmoniker does not yet sound entirely at home in Sibelius, the Staatskapelle – in a staggering rendition of the Second Symphony – embraced Elgar as one of its own.

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin © Belinda Lawley
Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin
© Belinda Lawley

Dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII, the Second was a deeply personal work. In a letter to his close correspondent Alice Stuart-Wortley, Elgar revealed that “I have written out my soul in the (Violin) concerto, Symphony No. 2 and the Ode (The Music Makers) and you know it... in these three works I have shewn myself.” Barenboim’s reading also struck me as deeply personal. Indeed, it almost became a portrait of the conductor himself: full of bravado and swagger on the surface – picture the familiar image of the maestro with cigar in hand and pretty girl on his arm! – but with tender, heartfelt emotions simmering beneath.

After the extended opening chords, Barenboim launched the symphony with a high-octane salvo at breathtaking speed. The glorious Staatskapelle horns set a Falstaffian mood, while the strings were coaxed into Elgar’s sweet nobilmente lines of the movement’s second subject. Barenboim, a natural Elgarian, was alive to every nuance of the score, shifting with ease from bullish brass entries to episodes featuring a veiled, ghostly violin motif. His podium manner is intriguing, with many gestures done more for the benefit of the audience – highlighting a particular moment in the score that catches his ear – rather than for the orchestra itself. Like a puppeteer, both hands raised aloft, he would manipulate the woodwind section, while grand sweeps of the arms would invite the burnished Staatskapelle strings to paint the score in burnt umber tones. At other times, left arm resting nonchalantly on the podium’s backrest, he would barely nod at his players, like a captain keeping no more than a gentle hand on the tiller.

Barenboim tenderly sculpted the Larghetto, a funeral march in all but name, heavily laden with regret. The great rheumy-eyed string outburst was overwhelmingly moving, the Berliners having little regard for English stiff upper lip restraint. The virtuosity of the third movement dazzled, Barenboim capturing both mischievous twinkle and brusque, boisterous modes superbly. Horns impressed once again in their exuberant contributions to the finale, where Barenboim guided his orchestra through the ebb and flow of moods, drawing to a nostalgic close. "Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!": Shelley's line was one of Elgar's inspiration in this symphony. Rarely can it have received such an inspired performance. 

If Barenboim is a natural Elgarian, Tchaikovsky really isn’t his bag. He didn’t seem to know what to do with the Violin Concerto at all, opting for gross exaggeration. Orchestral tuttis were often very fast, almost perfunctory, as if trying to whip up excitement, while when playing accompanist, Barenboim would apply the brakes heavily every time the score hit a pianissimo.

Fortunately, soloist Lisa Batiashvili was a more reliable guide, offering polished playing that veered away from extremes. Her pianissimos were always audible, her phrasing eloquent, especially in the tender middle movement Canzonetta. Apart from a scrappy first movement coda where synchronisation between soloist and orchestra faltered, wild abandon isn’t Batiashvili’s approach and, in this respect, she acted as a moderating influence on Barenboim. But in a performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto, I want the violinist to be the big musical personality, not the conductor.

There were still orchestral delights to be had, not least the stamping cellos setting the Russian hopak in motion in the finale, along with a beautiful oboe/clarinet exchange which followed. However, it was the Berliners’ Elgar which made the lasting impression here… an unforgettable performance.