As anniversaries go, a 220th isn’t perhaps the most eye-catching. Nonetheless, Daniel Barenboim and the Pierre Boulez Saal are choosing to mark the eleven-score years since the birth of Franz Schubert with a broad-ranging Projekt, featuring all the songs (spread over a few seasons), the piano sonatas (with Barenboim at the piano) and the symphonies (with Barenboim on the podium).

Daniel Barenboim © Peter Adamik
Daniel Barenboim
© Peter Adamik

But within the modest proportions and egalitarian in-the-round configuration of the Berlin's newest classical venue, this concert, the first in one of two complete symphony cycles, was every bit as much about the Staatskapelle Berlin as the Staatsoper’s Generalmusikdirektor. Barenboim’s conducting style is often elliptical, but there was even more leaning back and listening from him here, apparently simply marvelling at the sounds being produced by his scaled-down band – its strings at just 8: 6: 4: 3: 2.

There were moments where he would jostle them into increased vigour, or help mould phrases through his own gestures. At one of the main theme’s last reprises in the First Symphony’s finale the conductor instigated a drop in tempo and extra delicacy in colour before setting his players off again with renewed, joyous vivacity. It was a charming moment, but one of only very few touches where it felt like the conductor was making a specific interpretative point.

For all three symphonies (the First and Third in the first half, the Second coming after the interval) there was a sense of supreme naturalness, of letting the music speak for itself. The fast tempos were never forced, the slower speeds never dragging. There was no attempt either to spice them up with a HIP-style helping hand, or to impose retrospective greatness – in either sense.   

It was an approach that was just what was required for these early works dating from Schubert’s teens. Though well represented on disc, they are rare visitors to the concert hall – in my experience at least –overshadowed both by Schubert’s own later symphonic masterpieces and some of the other works on which they are often audibly modelled. These included works by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart, of course, as well as, one imagines, any number of other works by kleinmeister that could be heard in and around Schubert’s Vienna.

But what is remarkable is that, despite these audible influences, these always feel recognisably unmistakably Schubertian: in their various innovations; in the generous scale of, in particular, the outer movements of the First and Second; in the in ostinato-like figures in the finale of the Third that seem to look forward those the keep the ‘Great’ C major rumbling inexorably forward across its grand span. These performances took them seriously on their own terms, even if to say so is to risk underplaying the sheer joy that they communicated, the sense of fun to be had from the finest musicians revelling in music that is full of imagination and melody, not to mention irresistible rhythmic verve.

The whole orchestra was wonderful, but the heroes of the evening were arguably the Staatskapelle’s glorious woodwind section, whether blending into a rich, multi-coloured whole or in the conversational passages – solo or dialogue – that are such a feature of these works. The clarinet solos of the Third Symphony were a constant delight, the oboe solos throughout alive and mellifluous, the bassoon garrulous and the flute plangent. Trio sections were invariably a joy, while one could hardly imagine the chords that open the Third being better balanced, or the extended mysterious modulations before the recapitulation of the First’s opening movement better captured. 

The chamber music-like sense of the most civilised collaboration extended to the strings, too, whose playing was deft and transparent, always impeccably phrased and turned. The overall clarity of the sound was helped no doubt by the modest size of the string complement and the relaxed, warm acoustic of the hall, at least as I heard it from the balcony. And it was a nice touch for Barenboim to turn his orchestra around for the second half, to give a slightly different but equally satisfying aural perspective.

It will be interesting to see how the space accommodates the later symphonies, and whether Barenboim starts to feel the need for more noticeable interpretative intervention. Those questions will be answered in due course. For the time being, though, there was no question that this concert offered some of the classiest, most relaxed and straightforwardly enjoyable music-making I’ve heard for a long time. An unalloyed pleasure.