Daniel Barenboim’s cycle of Schubert symphonies with the Staatskapelle has been one of my concert-going highlights of recent months. The first two concerts, covering the first six symphonies, felt like easy-going, joyous musical get-togethers, with Barenboim himself as a gentle presiding spirit: coaxing and encouraging, guiding but never dictating.

Daniel Barenboim © Monika Rittershaus
Daniel Barenboim
© Monika Rittershaus

But those first works date from Schubert’s teenage years and, though full of ambition and glorious, life-affirming music, do not carry the weight – of expectation, of the ‘masterpiece’ epithet, even of posthumous discovery – of his “Unfinished” and “Great” C major. For this third concert of the leisurely first cycle – a second cycle, now underway, repeats them all within the space of a week – Barenboim had accordingly adjusted the arrangement of the Boulezsaal to accommodate a much larger orchestra, including string complement of 12.10.8.6.4 (compared to the 8.6.4.3.2 of the previous concert).

Seats were moved so that the orchestra could be placed at one side of the floor, removing some sense of us being in-the-round, and meaning that the configuration couldn’t be reversed for the second half as it had been for previous instalments. Barenboim’s own approach was adjusted, too. But he retained something like the familiar soft-touch approach in the “Unfinished”, allowing both movements to unfold naturally and enabling the sheer quality of the Staatskapelle’s playing to come to the fore.

That is not to say that this was an easy-going reading, though. In fact, it was one of enormous intensity and power. Spaciousness and patience certainly didn't preclude drama, especially in a development section (no repeat of the exposition here, as with other works throughout the cycle) of the opening Allegro moderato. This was masterfully built up in grand surging waves, the Staatskapelle taking on a biting edge to their sound in the Boulezsaal’s acoustic – something that made the coda unusually shattering, harrowing even. The winds offered consoling voices in a steady Andante con moto, given with a firm tread that avoided billowing into portentousness in the grander moments. There was wonderful work from the principal oboe, in particular, as well as the clarinet, often brought down to an almost imperceptible hush.

Barenboim’s approach in the final symphony was less wholly satisfying. Here he didn’t seem as willing to let this work seem to play itself, as had been his way with the early symphonies, or to offer the same sense of unimpeded, inexorable flow as he did with the “Unfinished”. The opening movement’s introduction was carefully managed and sculpted, for example, but a rush of blood to the head as we raced into the Allegro ma non troppo hinted at what was to come. There were plenty of exciting shifts of tempo, while the orchestra’s sound could swell thrillingly – abetted by the martial rapping of hard-sticked timpani – not least in a thundering development section. The pìu moto coda was whipped up into something like a Dyonisian frenzy.

The astonishing Andante con moto felt more straightforward, lyrical generosity adorning progress towards a properly crashing central dissonance – followed, though, by an exaggerated pause. There were further rhetorical additions in the Scherzo, as well as a slight pause introduced to the opening phrase – and repeated at its reiterations – but the cushioned transition to an expansive Trio was wonderful. The Finale can rarely have been performed at such a dash: thrilling, no doubt, not least given the dexterity with which the strings negotiated the tempo, but bordering on the gratuitous, and further pushed and pulled by the conductor.

Barenboim exerted a tight grip here, and at several other points throughout the work, which occasionally seemed to squeeze out the bracing air that gives the score so much of its character. Further interventions underlined rhetorical points that barely need the extra help. But he almost made it work, and his daring and risk-taking can only be admired. This “Great” isn't quite yet as convincing as his powerful “Unfinished”, then, but it was compelling, fascinating performance nonetheless.