Speaking a few days after the end of the First World War, Lloyd-George promised “a fit country for heroes to live in”. Some twenty years later, in the shadow of the next world war, Bertolt Brecht countered with “Pity the country that needs heroes.” Only a year earlier, in 1938, Stalin’s eagerness to resurrect Russia’s heroic past had resulted in a commission to Eisenstein to produce his first sound film. Perhaps the greatest political control freak ever, the Man of Steel was determined to celebrate the patriotic service of the medieval prince Alexander Nevsky (himself canonised by Stalin’s own hero, Ivan the Terrible) in fending off invasive challenges from the West. Prokofiev, recently returned from a creative sojourn in Hollywood, was invited to compose the soundtrack, and after the film’s triumphant screening a seven-movement cantata based on the movie was quickly premièred in Moscow. This super-charged choral work was the main attraction in the latest visit to the Elbphilharmonie by the Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim. Of late the orchestra’s Conductor for Life has been facing charges of harassment towards his musicians, so it was intriguing to see whether the recent ructions and ensuing media opprobrium had affected the morale of his players.

Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin & Chor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden © Daniel Dittus
Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin & Chor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden
© Daniel Dittus

Not on this showing. The other crack ensemble from Berlin is grounded on the dark-toned, sumptuous quality of the strings, impressively displayed in an unusual opening work, the Little Suite for Strings by Skalkottas. He was one of Schoenberg’s foremost disciples in 1920s Berlin, but after returning to his Greek homeland languished in insignificance until his early death in 1949. Written in the year of Barenboim’s birth, this short three-movement work, which the conductor first studied as an eleven-year-old on a conducting course in 1954, features spiky rhythms and jagged textures that demand pin-point precision from the players for the dance-like character to take full effect. Best of all here was the hushed inwardness of the Andante section, very Second Viennese School, contemplative in mood, the individual notes sounding like raindrops falling from the sky.

It is tempting to see gathering clouds of mortality in Mozart’s last piano concerto. It was first performed in a Viennese concert hall in the aptly named Himmelpfortgasse (Gate-to-Heaven-Lane) in March 1791, and was the composer’s final appearance in public. Yet he was to live for a further nine months and used the theme of the rondo finale a short while later for a song in which a longing for spring was writ large. Barenboim has always had a special affinity for the music of Mozart. With 31 strings to his left and right, and the woodwind choir in direct eye contact just metres away from the keyboard, this performance had a rare intimacy, like eavesdropping on the inner workings of the mind. More particularly, it had a freshness and a lightness which dispelled all the cares of the world and never once indulged in misplaced sentiment. Quite unusually, too, Barenboim played K595 without a break between individual movements, as if to underline the seamless train of thought which takes the listener from the opening serenity to the veiled joyfulness of the finale, traversing all the subtly varied shifts in mood on the way. Throughout, the Staatskapelle musicians and their sublime soloist breathed as one.

Whereas Mozart has always been one of the mainstays of Barenboim’s repertoire, I cannot recall him venturing much into the very different sound world of Prokofiev. His Berlin orchestra conveyed the heavy tread of the forces of history in the orchestral introduction, wrapped in Stygian gloom, the landscapes bleak and unrelenting. Yet there is also a sharp-edged brilliance and acerbity to Prokofiev’s cantata which contrasts with the growling and bear-like embrace of much of the orchestral and choral writing. This never quite emerged, and in a hall where congestion immediately sets in whenever a large body of players is involved, textures were often muddied. At times it was like listening to a recording through an under-powered amplifier and inadequate loudspeakers.

Daniel Barenboim and Anita Rachvelishvili © Daniel Dittus
Daniel Barenboim and Anita Rachvelishvili
© Daniel Dittus

Pieces of musical propaganda demand theatricality and visceral excitement. I am not persuaded that this is wholly in Barenboim’s formidable musical armoury, though there was no absence of depth in the sixth movement, “The Field of the Dead”, where the carnage wrought in medieval killing fields was crowned by the magnificent contribution of the mezzo soloist, the Georgian Anita Rachvelishvili. Her rich, dark voice, overlaid with a by no means unidiomatic heavy vibrato, narrated in a soulful lament all the iniquities of war and personal loss: “He who fell for Russia in noble death shall be blest by my kiss on his dead eyes.”

Cantatas like Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky depend on valiant choral contributions. Five of the movements require concentrated precision and vocal firepower. The Chor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden, ably prepared by Martin Wright, more than rose to the challenge.