Daniel Barenboim remains a constant Proms favourite and his second concert this week with the Staatskapelle Berlin continued a series delving into the music of Mozart and Bruckner that concludes in the following Prom with the equally distinguished, though less regular, Christian Thielemann and his Staatskapelle Dresden. Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 26 in D major and Bruckner’s Symphony no. 6 in A major are thematically a good combination; neither is often singled out as being among the best works in the composers’ contributions to the genres, and both have been somewhat underloved both by posterity and by programmers.

Daniel Barenboim © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Daniel Barenboim
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

I’ve always found the Piano Concerto no. 26 one of Mozart’s more endearing works – though it lacks, in many musical respects, the more advanced writing that characterises the composer’s music of the same period, there’s a cheery bubbliness and lack of blatant showiness that gives the work a distinct character. It’s known as the “Coronation” Concerto after it was played in a performance in Frankfurt in 1790 during the period when Leopold II was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, but Barenboim’s playing of the piece eschewed pomp and regality. Directing from a piano with lid removed and wedged into the orchestra with his back firmly against the audience, there were constant reminders of the soft beauty that comes so naturally to Barenboim’s art, but he adopted some erratic tempi shifts that might perhaps have been more means-driven than for artistic purposes – this regularly threatened to disrupt both a sense of coherent flow in the piece and the careful dynamic between piano and orchestra. The Allegretto too was often a little subdued for my tastes. There was much to delight in though, from the coyness of his lighter notes in the Allegro to moments of desperate nostalgia in the Larghetto, and opting to use Wanda Landowska’s cadenza was a classy touch. The Staatskapelle played with silky creaminess, subtle and intimate in the first movement with lingering textures in the strings, and in memorable moments in Larghetto nimble bursts erupted through and contrasted with the heavier flow of the piece.

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

We often moan about the Royal Albert Hall as a concert venue, but there are few composers better suited to it than Bruckner. The Sixth is a departure from Bruckner’s customary style – slightly less idiosyncratic in construction and with a rather less expansive feeling than many of his symphonies, it’s a trim work that often suffers from a tendency to perform it in the same manner as the others. Barenboim firmly avoided this meandering approach, crafting an interpretation that had a firm appreciation for the structure of the work. Tempi alternated between the delightfully languorous, and the decidedly, excitingly snappy, noticeable particularly in the first and fourth movements.

The stars were, unusually, the double-basses, lined up and elevated above the rest of the orchestra at the rear, their rich throbbing carried easily over their colleagues to give the symphony a rare additional layer, an inspired move by Barenboim. They were at their best in the Majestoso, giving the movement a distinctly organic pulse that Barenboim’s tempi quickened into thrilling moments of near-climax. Honeyed, but insistent woodwind were an indulgence in the Adagio and Barenboim’s control of the orchestral balance in the quieter moments was skilfully deployed, while pregnant pauses in the Scherzo aided the tension of the movement. Barenboim was without score, as with the Mozart, and the ease between conductor and orchestra was clear; his left-hand often dominated, shaping and guiding the work rather than dominating it, an approach that was obviously reflected in the playing – how nice to have Bruckner brass that collaborated rather than being let loose to obliterate!

In a startling moment of humour, the composer referred to the work as “die Keckste” – the sassiest – and this account was refreshingly in that vein: Bruckner without the bombast. Barenboim may not be as agile on the piano as in the past, but his musical instincts are stronger than ever.