After performing the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies of Anton Bruckner on Monday and Tuesday, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin took no rest, but travelled to Paris to perform the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies in the Salle Pleyel to keep themselves occupied on Wednesday and Thursday. And now, here they were back again to complete the London ‘Bruckner Project’ and so repeat their previous night’s performance of the 9th. Something of a marathon, you might think, until you remember that they played six Bruckner symphonies (coupled with Beethoven concertos) in a week last summer in Berlin, and that they will be playing all nine Bruckner symphonies, together with six Mozart piano concertos, over the space of ten days in June in Vienna. Barenboim seems to thrive on marathons, and on the evidence of last night’s concert, he thrives on Bruckner. This performance of the Ninth was outstanding.

Daniel Barenboim © Felix Broede / DG
Daniel Barenboim
© Felix Broede / DG

It was a performance of such assurance and commitment that this reviewer is in danger of running out of superlatives in the attempt to give an impression of what happened this evening in the Royal Festival Hall. Unlike in his approach to the Eighth Symphony, Barenboim’s flexible way with tempo was convincing throughout. A very quiet tremolo arose from the silence, misty horns explored the D minor chord very slowly, very atmospherically, rising up to a stunning, beautifully-shaped presentation of the horn theme in all its glorious nobility. The delicate sequence of the descending violin motive that follows was, if anything, still slower, but thereafter begins a long crescendo, and with it Barenboim began his accelerando towards the cataclysmic triple-forte statement of the first movement’s main theme – the octave drops granitic and implacable. This thematic material returns in the second part of the movement, in what Robert Simpson calls an ‘expanded counterstatement’ rather than a development and recapitulation, and here the tempo relationships were different, the sequence of the little descending motive transferred to the cellos, now urgent and troubled, already part of the feverish accelerando towards to extended repetition of that massive climax. It was inconsistent, but totally convincing and very powerful.

The second theme group, ‘song period’, was ravishingly played by strings and woodwind, its expressiveness eloquent but not overdone; the third theme, once again working through that D minor triad, entered very slow and mysterious, the wonderful hornists giving of their best – especially at the end of the counterstatement where, in a chorale-like diminuendo they usher in the violins’ pianissimo commencement of the coda, which rose up in agitated string triplets to end in a blaze of fanfares. It was shattering and magnificent.

The Scherzo’s pizzicato violins were swift, finely pointed and sinister, their ghostly dance soon conjuring up the horror of the stamping brass, hammering home their message with uncompromising brutality. No respite in the Trio, a different dance whose quicksilver slithering was the stuff of nightmares.

Having heard Barenboim’s Berlin Bruckner cycle, I was anxious that after such a tremendous performance of the first two movements, the Adagio might be disfigured by expressive exaggeration. In Berlin the opening note on violins had been extended beyond rhythmic cohesion, and the massive dissonance at the climax, an accented crotchet, was sustained over eight times the duration Bruckner wrote in the score. In the event, tonight the Adagio received a performance of such coherence, eloquence and power, it was totally overwhelming. Yes, he did hold that dissonance longer than Bruckner conceived it, but this time it remained within the bounds of musical proportion, and was all the more terrifying for it. The string playing throughout the Adagio was radiant, the second theme beautifully phrased, slightly restrained, never risking sentimentality. It had been preceded by the descending Wagner tuba chorale that Bruckner dubbed his ‘farewell to life’, and it is hard to imagine it more beautifully, more expressively played. The churning chromaticism through which the movement progresses was very disturbing indeed – I have rarely felt so emotionally unsettled during a concert performance; at times it was hard to bear. The horns and Wagner tubas graced the wind-down from the climax with downward steps of solemn beauty, the ‘quotation’ from the Eighth Symphony’s Adagio treated to a crescendo-diminuendo swell that was enough to break one’s heart, and finally the long-held E major chord on brass above barely audible string pizzicatos was left hanging in the air…

… and there was now a vast inconsolable emptiness, which we, the audience, filled with a cheering, standing ovation. Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the London Philharmonic took Bruckner at his word and filled that gap with a performance of the Te Deum; the other Berliners, the Philharmonic with Sir Simon Rattle, carried on into what Bruckner wrote of the finale, completed by Samale, Phillips, Cohrs and Mazzuca. Each performance provided a powerful insight Bruckner’s extraordinary, uncompromising final composition. It is hard to imagine a three-movement performance being stronger, more impassioned, or profounder than the Staatskapelle Berlin delivered this evening.

I am left with little space to write of the performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat, which constituted the first half. Suffice it to say that there was enough in that performance alone to send one home satisfied. Barenboim and the orchestra were on top form in a gentle, beguiling interpretation, with the woodwind, minus oboe, playing a prominent part and playing it wonderfully. There were many moments of great magic, but the slow episode in the rondo finale and the transition to the return of the main theme stands out as one of the most winning. Barenboim’s rippling scales and rapt pianissimos were complemented by orchestral playing of equal virtuosity and expressiveness. Altogether, an unforgettable concert.