In his typically erudite post-concert address to the audience, Daniel Barenboim mischievously promised not to talk about politics. The only way to defeat isolationism, he said after his first encore (Nimrod, of course), is through shared culture, before (once again) launching into the Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1 as proof of his point. Sure enough, he didn't mention the B-word, but to hear a German orchestra of the Staatkapelle Berlin's class playing Elgar with such heart was surely nothing if not political. Encores are seldom so worthy of note, but the great tune of the march, tonight entirely without its questionable text, has never moved me so much.

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

We are curiously protective of Elgar in this country, bemoaning his absence from continental programmes but raising our eyebrows a fraction on the rare occasion his symphonies are played. Surely no foreign orchestra could possible hope to capture that particularly British spirit which pervades these works? Barenboim noted after the symphony how keen his wonderful orchestra had been to show their Elgar off to the Proms; the partnership can probably now be added to a shortlist of the great Elgarians.

The Second Symphony is a curious beast, lacking the 'big tune' which bookends the First and requiring an unfaltering grasp of its long structure in order to make sense of its complexities. Barenboim's reading, conducted without a score, had generally quick tempi throughout, and a dramatic arc laid out with compelling clarity. The Berliners' playing was on the whole a notch more muscular than most accounts of this music, and they did remarkably well to maintain such clean textures, even in the notoriously unsympathetic Royal Albert Hall acoustic.

The first movement was attacked briskly as the post-interval applause died down, and almost all of the strophes which mark the key waypoints, where Barenboim would typically throw on the brakes from an otherwise quick pace, were observed with unflinching accuracy. The second movement, though unfussy and forward looking in tempo, formed the emotional heart of the symphony. The noble theme which weaves its way through the fabric of the music above soft bass footsteps was treated with ravishing dignity, profoundly human in its self doubt and grandeur and above all backed by the glorious strong sound of this venerable ensemble. The restlessly wandering oboe solo later in the movement was especially memorable.

After a Scherzo which flashed by in a flurry of raucous woodwind and percussive machinations after taking a moment to settle, the finale was a fittingly rich tapestry of nostalgia and optimism. For all the noble sentiment on offer, there was anxiety and self-doubt in abundance.

Whereas the First Symphony was prefaced by Sibelius' Violin Concerto on Saturday, the Second followed the UK première of Harrison Birtwistle's Deep Time, a Staatskapelle/Proms co-commission dedicated to the memory of the composer's peer from his Manchester days, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Its first performance came in Berlin last month, but few new works in any forum can be as well received as the 25-minute work was this evening. 

In its demands for a vast array of tuned percussion, gongs and tam-tams and pairs of contrabass clarinets, contrabassoons, harps, tubas and antiphonal bass drums, Birtwistle creates a unique sound world which few orchestras will be able to afford to replicate. In its achievement of the composer's aims though, to question our perceptions of time, it is completely successful. The recurring theme was of disparate combinations between steady, subtly changing rhythmic pulses, long lines from the woodwind (soprano sax in particular) and jagged interjections from 4-malleted percussion. The unusual sounds of feathery light and yet percussive violin harmonics, the most aggressive double bass pizzicato I have heard and a climactic tam tam roar achieved that uncommon feat of making perfectly judged contributions to the work as a whole rather than mere individual noises.

In a brilliant Proms première and decisively taking ownership of blazing Elgar and presenting it as central European fare rather than isolationist small print, Barenboim and his orchestra made strong musical and political points. Whatever one's views on the latter, the former was a complete joy to behold.