It’s been a bumper Proms season for German orchestras, and the last couple of weeks of the festival have been almost monopolised by them: first the Leipzig Gewandhaus, then the Berliner Philharmoniker and now, before a visit from the Dresden Staatskapelle, one of the German capital’s other great institutions, the Berlin Staatskapelle. Daniel Barenboim has been this orchestra’s music director for nearly a quarter of a century, and in that time he has returned an ensemble that for many decades was barely known in international terms outside the pit of its ‘day’ job at the Berlin Staatsoper to a status of pre-eminence on the concert stage. By a stroke of clever planning, or more likely serendipity, given the way touring orchestras offer their programmes to presenters, both Staatskapelles have brought pairings of Mozart piano concertos with Bruckner symphonies to the Proms, the Berlin in both of its programmes, the Dresden in the first of its two. This opening concert in this mini-Mozart/Bruckner-fest paired Mozart’s C minor Concerto K491 with Bruckner’s “Romantic” Fourth Symphony.

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

Barenboim himself was soloist in the Mozart. In a kind of analogy to the overall feeling of the performance, he embedded the piano physically within the orchestra, piano lid removed and with his back to the bulk of the audience. His low-key playing, lyrical rather than indulging in flashy brilliance, even in the finale, intertwined with the orchestral playing more in the manner of a piece of chamber music than the traditional image of a concerto as a work of conflict. The whole performance, then, felt understated, and one remembers it more for the many beautifully refined wind solos and duets perhaps than Barenboim’s own contribution, which was nonetheless marked by delicacy, songfulness and dreamy languor. The scale of the performance, using a medium-sized string body of over 30 players, worked well in the Royal Albert Hall’s spaciousness.

As did, of course, the much larger forces at play in the Bruckner. Yet even here there was no sense of bloatedness. The body of strings, with the violins splaying up the tiers and double basses lined up above everyone else, was admittedly large, but the score calls for only eight woodwind, four horns and standard brass, and an extra ‘bump’ trumpet was the only extravagance here. Barenboim seemed more energised ‘playing’ the orchestra in Bruckner than he had the piano in the Mozart. And it did feel like a single instrument, responding to some finely tuned instructions, with phrasing and dynamics felt right through the vertical spread of the sound. Take the opening of the finale, for instance, where the ominous, steady plod of the basses and ostinato in the violins followed the changing tensions of the main horn theme above rather than carrying on regardless.

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

Liberties were taken with dynamics, even scoring, but all with the effect of enlivening the music, making even some of Bruckner’s cruder moments and meanderings seem necessary parts of the whole. There were some remarkable pianissimos, no more so than at the opening of the Andante, which sounded overall less like a funeral dirge than a tentative trudge through a mysterious landscape of the imagination. And the pulse maintained here seemed to provide the undercurrent for the rest of the symphony, from the rhythmic kick of the galloping hunting horns in the Scherzo to the relentless sense of motion in the finale, where the prominent accents given to the tremolo strings in the concluding build-up brought added tension. It was details such as this, together with some blazing but well-balanced tuttis, exquisite individual playing – especially from the valiant guest principal horn, Radek Baborák – and Barenboim’s conveying of the bigger picture through broad phraseology that made this one of the most memorable and emotionally engaged Bruckner interpretations in my experience.