The Filarmonica della Scala opened the season with a concert that celebrated its virtues and symbolised its ambitions. The presence of Daniel Barenboim, the former Music Director of La Scala, spoke of its inclusive doctrine, which sees a group of the world's greatest conductors invited each year to lead symphonic engagements at this opera house. Inviting Martha Argerich to play in Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 1 alongside him signified its capacity to draw top flight musicians to a Milanese audience in symphonic concerts. And pairing that work with Bruckner's Symphony no. 7 demonstrated that this is no group of players that should be confined to the pit. They carried off this titan of the symphonic repertoire in impressive form.
On a stage lined with a row of white lilies, this performance of the Beethoven concerto was characterised by a purity and vitality of sound. Clad in a breezy floral dress, Argerich pawed over the keyboard airily, summoning crystalline textures in the trickling runs that adorn the work's first movement, and concluding phrases with aural pirouettes that evaporated in puffs of smoke. Barenboim honed in on the orchestral part's bombastic qualities, beckoning tart interjections with a swipe of the paw and a jab of the finger. His imperious command was impressive, as was his synchrony with Argerich's playing. The baton passed between them seamlessly, the two childhood friends making music in the moment with a special spontaneity.
Nowhere was the partnership more gratifying than in the Largo, where piano and orchestral parts had the effect of dissolving into one another. In the Rondo. Allegro scherzando Argerich mined the playful variations for arresting colours. Then came the inevitable moment when a second piano stool was wheeled on for an encore of Schubert's Rondo in A major. Argerich drove from the lower part as Barenboim twinkled above. This was a performance of utter naturalness that made you sink into your chair.
After such tender playing, the dark canvas drawn for the Bruckner made for stark contrast. The last time this symphony had been heard on this stage – in a performance from the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle – we had been treated to a vast Brucknerian cathedral of sound imbued with slow-burning momentum. Barenboim's interpretation sat on the opposite end of the spectrum, characterised by restless energy stoked by the conductor's tireless work ethic.
Much of this felt mannered, with the cracks between sections almost accentuated, and the bouncing Scherzo was indulgently sluggish. But we also got a heightened sense of struggle, so vital to this work. Barenboim warmed the embers, before unleashing blazing glory at the climaxes. His control of orchestral colours evoked delicious hues, from nutty lower strings to pained cries of anguish. With such responsive playing, the prospect of seeing the Filarmonica conducted by so many of the world's greats is a tantalising one.
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