Both as conductor and pianist, septuagenarian Daniel Barenboim has been more active during the last year of pandemic lockdown than many other musicians who are decades younger. On Saturday evening, he replaced Finnish conductor Mikko Franck at very short notice at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic. Barenboim's long relationship with the orchestra is truly special and he claimed, in the interview accompanying the stream, that he felt helping out was “part of his responsibility”. (Barenboim was named the first honorary conductor of the orchestra in 2019.) Not having conducted the Sibelius' Fifth Symphony for 25 years, he replaced it – not unreasonably – with Brahms' First. The scope of a programme meant to explore Sibelius’ connections to Brahms was thus shifted to a comparison between the material for Brahms’ discarded first symphony (that became his Piano Concerto no. 1) and the First Symphony proper, finished two decades later.

Yefim Bronfman, Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

Yefim Bronfman has played Brahms’ D minor concerto innumerable times. It is a score that is well suited for his brand of pianism, with an enormous range of sound going from huge chords draped in velvet to delicate cobwebs with the strength of steel. His performance was honest, with expressive phrasing, and in accord with the intentions of the conductor and the orchestra. Similar to other masterpieces fully ingrained in today’s concert life, it is difficult to comprehend the shock listeners must have felt at the concerto’s Hamburg premiere. How disturbing must have been the cataclysmic opening gestures – with timpani and strings in their search for direction – repeated after a brief lyrical intermezzo, and followed by the piano entering from nowhere with a new motif and only gradually bringing along reminiscences of the beginning. There were multiple remarkable moments in the massive first movement’s rendition: Bronfman playing without any bombast the poco più moderato solo passage that starts by sounding like a chorale; his delicate accompaniment of the solo horn (Stefan Dohr) followed by roaring octaves; Barenboim’s effort to balance visions of tragic spectres and moments of respite. Often considered as a portrait of Clara Schumann and the young composer’s confused sentiments for her, the Adagio, with its serene dialogue between strings and woodwinds, had true gravitas. Bronfman’s playing seemed to convey a noble resignation, later denied by awakening trills and a superb transition to the more ebullient Finale, interpreted with wonderful articulation and musicality.

Yefim Bronfman plays Brahms with the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

Like that of the piano concerto, the performance of Brahms’ First Symphony was not necessarily revelatory in new insights. Barenboim controlled the rhythms with a firm hand, still letting the musical flow breathe. Ensemble playing was faultless with organic shifts between winds and strings. The conductor drew attention to the multiple musical ideas interlacing from the very introduction. After the polyphonic character of the first movement, the lyrical Andante sostenuto, with its superb solo violin (concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto) was mostly subdued and the Allegretto subtle. The final brass chorale and the unbridled energy of the last bars were a clear signal that the composer had finally vanquished his inhibitions.

Daniel Barenboim
© Monika Rittershaus

The Berlin Philharmonic has made available their performances available online long before the pandemic-induced streaming wave. Their rich experience in producing such videos is clear in every frame. Even more, they have augmented their transmissions with interviews conducted by members of the orchestra with many of their guests. In the latest, Turkish-born violinist Hande Küden – who joined the ensemble only two years ago – elicited some remarkable comments from Barenboim about Lieder being Brahms’ “intimate diary”, Pierre Boulez “opening the horizons of programming” and the “privileged existence” of interpreters, always thriving to find something new in scores, and “starting from zero” upon embarking on any reinterpretation.

This performance was reviewed from the Digital Concert Hall live video stream