Daniel Barenboim’s concert series with the Staatskapelle Berlin is an elegant venue for hosting the greats. On May 5th, the legendary pianist Maurizio Pollini joined Barenboim at the Berlin Konzerthaus for an evening of works by Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms.

Maurizio Pollini © Cosimo Filippini | CAMI
Maurizio Pollini
© Cosimo Filippini | CAMI

Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor premièred in 1859, when the composer was 25 years old and still launching his career. The critics hated it, and after the audience hissed the piece, Brahms made a number of editorial changes that resulted in the piece we have today. Though it follows the traditional three-movement concerto structure, the First Concerto differs from its predecessors in that Brahms does not make the orchestra accompany the piano. Rather, the two are entwined, neither of them dominating the scene. In the hands of consummate musicians, it is a daring work.

Pollini performed this fine concerto in a way that left the audience in raptures. While the concerto itself is not Brahms’ most attention-grabbing piece, Pollini played with technical brilliance and a vitality that showcased his lifelong love affair with the piano (now 72, Pollini has played the piano since childhood and is known the world over for his musicianship). His hands swept over the keyboard, commanding the piece to tell its story. The Staatskapelle partnered Pollini well, matching his vigour and spirit note for note. And when the last note died away, the audience went wild, shouting and stamping-no hissing here. Alas, there were no encores.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Quixote. Composed in 1897 and premièred the following year, the “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character” features a solo cello as Quixote and solo viola as his faithful servant, Sancho Panza. The cellist, Claudius Popp, was in excellent form, his playing elegant and fiery. Popp is known throughout Europe for his extraordinary musicianship and passionate playing. He enjoys a special relationship with the Staatskapelle Berlin, having been asked by Barenboim himself to be the principal cellist at the tender age of only 21. It was a gamble that paid off: Popp is well on his way to becoming a legend.

On the viola, Felix Schwarz, Staatskapelle principal violist and well-known soloist, matched Popp’s playing note for note. Schwarz, too, has a strong working relationship with Daniel Barenboim, working with the latter’s East-West Divan orchestra and teaching at the Musikschule Hans Eisler in Berlin. He and Popp made an excellent team as Panza and Quixote, set against the backdrop of the Staatskapelle’s playing. Don Quixote is a wild, sometimes cacophonous, but ultimately enjoyable piece, one that lives up to its literary parent in every way (there is even a moment with a wind machine to denote the Don’s famous tilting at windmills). Under Barenboim’s guiding hand, there was not a note out of place, and the entire piece was presented in an elegant package for the audience’s enjoyment.

Ultimately, the evening was enjoyable and energetic. Maurizio Pollini, Claudius Popp and Felix Schwartz outdid themselves, and the Staatskapelle Berlin, led by Daniel Barenboim, put on an excellent evening of music, not one that is likely to be forgotten any time soon. 

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