There are pros and cons when it comes to the programming of cycles. And sometimes doing so seems little more than an excuse to smuggle in yet more performances of works we already hear too often under the cloak of completism. But if Schubert’s final two symphonies hardly need a helping hand, the first six rare visitors to the concert hall in my experience. Daniel Barenboim’s Schubert cycle with his Staatskapelle Berlin at the Boulezsaal, which reached its midway point with this second concert, is making as eloquent a case as possible for them.

Daniel Barenboim © Monika Rittershaus
Daniel Barenboim
© Monika Rittershaus

If I’m to have one complaint, it's a selfish one: the consistency in the quality of the playing and in the relaxed rightness of the approach makes life tricky for the critic. It’s difficult not to repeat much of what I said in my review of the first concert – and to give this instalment anything other than the same star rating would be churlish. 

The greatest joy of these performances remained their sense of informality, the feeling of the finest musicians – coaxed and jostled by their Generalmusikdirektor – playing through these works as much for their own pleasure as anyone else’s: imagine a large scale Schubertiad in a 600-seat, state-of-the-art salon. As before, Barenboim offered interpretations that give the music stature without weighing it down with portentousness. He revels in these works as what they are: not mature masterpieces, perhaps, but the inspired creations of a teenage genius soaking up influences (predominantly Mozart and Haydn) and casting them anew in unmistakably Schubertian moulds. 

Also as before, the works were not performed in number order, the sunny Fifth preceding the “Tragic” Fourth in the first half. In the more modestly scored Fifth I initially missed the extra colour of the Staatskapelle’s clarinets (the symphony is also the only one to eschew trumpets and timpani, and employs just a single flute), but the playing was nevertheless full of delights. What wind players there were performed with unfailing eloquence, while the strings phrased the opening movement’s lines with supreme elegence. There was lyrical generosity in the Andante con moto, its minor sections featuring especially lovely playing from the flute and oboes, and tautly controlled zip in the Menuetto. The Allegro vivace Finale mixed Haydnesque quick-wittedness with easy-going, urbane virtuosity. 

Barenboim was quick to whip up Fifth's fleeting moments of Sturm und Drang, and conversely emphasised the lightness that seeps into so much of the Fourth – one should remember that Schubert applied the “Tragic” epithet only some time after finishing the work. The tense introduction wasn’t underplayed at all, nor was the gravitas of rest of the first movement or the stern, dogged Menuet, but the lifts in mood were always effected with a broad smile. The Andante blossomed beautifully, the wind playing once again exceptional, while the Finale built up an irresistible, joyous momentum as those characteristic Schubert repetitions took hold. 

There were similar pleasures to be had in the Sixth Symphony after the interval. I noted a lilt in the phrasing of the Andante that I imagined could only come from players genuinely enjoying themselves, a terrific Schwung in the Menuet and an irresistible lightness of touch in the Rossinian Finale. And the performance of this symphony helped me formulate in my mind what it was that made the whole concert so enjoyable. Beyond the sheer quality of so much of the playing, it was the fact that there was a chamber music-like care given to all the accompanying figures – the motoric chugs, sprung off-beat chords and bustling counterpoints. Such attention across the board was essential in giving the performances such inner verve and joy, it seemed, with the second violins, so often scampering and scurrying around in the background, arguably the heroes of the evening.

All in all, this was another concert to treasure.