Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris for 14 years, Daniel Barenboim knows a thing or two about French repertoire (even if he did banish French bassoons in favour of the German Heckel model during his tenure). He performed a lot of Berlioz in Paris, including the first of three recordings of the Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz’ psychedelic creation borne out of his infatuation with the actress Harriet Smithson. He returned to the Fantastique again yesterday evening when French scores topped and tailed the bill at an empty Berlin Philharmonie, but it was prefaced by works showcasing Principal Flautist Emmanuel Pahud.

Emmanuel Pahud and the Berlin Philharmonic © Monika Rittershaus
Emmanuel Pahud and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

Jacques Ibert rarely appears on concert bills; Escales seems to have fallen out of favour and his impish Divertissement remains a party piece. His Flute Concerto, composed in 1932 and dedicated to Marcel Moyse, doyen of French flautists, is fiendishly difficult. Its endless phrases offer barely a space to breathe and it’s a tough blow, with a big orchestral landscape to navigate. None of this seemed to faze Pahud, who rode the busy boulevards of the outer movements with insouciance, his articulation of the repeated triplets in the jaunty Allegro scherzando finale tremendous. In the Andante, his golden tone caressed the line on a bed of featherlight support from the Berlin Philharmonic's strings. At the concerto’s conclusion, how lovely to hear clapping, foot stamps – and even whistles – from Pahud’s colleagues to compensate for the lack of an audience. 

Ferruccio Busoni’s Divertimento for Flute and Small Orchestra is even rarer than Ibert’s concerto. It was composed in May 1920, Busoni claiming it came “as easily as writing a letter”. The first public performance (13th January 1921) was actually given by the Berlin Philharmonic, with Dutch flutist Henrik de Vries playing the solo role. There’s a Mozartian airiness to the flute writing, tonality drifting – but never far – in this mini-concerto with an operatic arioso in the middle. Pahud dashed it off with panache, the final cadence’s question mark the musical equivalent of a shrug. 

Pahud wasn’t finished though. Before rejoining the orchestra in his usual Principal Flute seat, he read the detailed programme note Berlioz penned for his Symphonie fantastique. Barenboim chose to have the four harps flank the conductor’s podium (as did Nicholas Collon in Aurora Orchestra’s dramatic Proms staging), highlighting their ear-tickling contributions to Le Bal but leaving them as silent spectators to the rest of the performance.

The Berlin Philharmonic harps take centre stage © Monika Rittershaus
The Berlin Philharmonic harps take centre stage
© Monika Rittershaus

But they were satisfied spectators, without doubt, because this was an absorbing account, driven by Barenboim’s ear for orchestral sonority. Both hands often in motion together, like a puppeteer manipulating the action, Barenboim drew refined playing. It helped that, unlike many orchestras using reduced string forces due to social distancing requirements, the Berlin Phil (presumably due to regular Covid-testing) fielded a full complement, sharing desks, resulting in high calorific tone. The waltz was highly polished – despite something clattering to the floor off-camera – and the Scène aux champs was poignantly played, Dominik Wollenweber (cor anglais) in distant dialogue with the off-stage Albrecht Mayer (oboe).

The March to the Scaffold was on the stately side, but the Witches’ Sabbath finale had all the thrills and spills one could hope for, from creepy sul ponticellos to spiky spiccatos from the strings, to hysterical E flat clarinet whoops (Walter Seyfarth), a huge church bell somewhere up in the Philharmonie’s balcony and a tuba close-up so tight you could read the serial number on the mouthpiece. 

And when Berlioz has whipped everything into a frenzy and the final notes have exploded into the empty hall? The video director cuts to black and all you hear is Barenboim’s polite “Bravo, Danke schön.” Danke schön, indeed.

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