Barenboim – the waggon rolls

Barenboim – the waggon rolls


norman lebrecht

January 29, 2010

At ten o’clock this morning (Friday, Jan 29) at the Royal Festival Hall, Daniel Barenboim began his attempt to rekindle the Beethoven intensity of his London piano cycle of 2008.

Over the next four nights he will perform the five Beethoven piano concertos in conjunction with the orchestral works of Arnold Schoenberg. Tickets for two of the concerts sold out within minutes. Some 900 Londoners bought the cycle outright and demand for the whole has been so heavy that the hall opened its general rehearsal to the public this morning and will screen a live relay – free to all comers – in the ballroom downstairs.

If you are anywhere near the South Bank, get down there for as many as possible and certainly for the last on Tuesday when Barenboim will play the third Beethoven piano concerto, give an illustrated talk on the intractable Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra and then give a full performance of the Variations. The aim is maximum public engagement and if the atmosphere is anything like it was two years ago, these concerts should be unmissable.

The rehearsal was little more than a touching up of tricky turns in Schoenberg’s 1905 Pelleas und Melisande, a D-minor suite that shares much of its tonal language with the preceding Verklärte Nacht. This is not Arnie at his most challenging and the Staatskapelle played as if it were late Brahms.

The orchestra of the Berlin State Opera is an exceptionally fine band without as much brand recognition as you might expect from having Barenboim as conductor for life. I have heard them before, in Vienna and Berlin, and noted that the players do not project their individuality as powerfully as the all-stars of the Berlin Philharmonic, or as empathetically as the London Symphony Orchestra. There is something stubbornly low-key about them.

Perhaps it has to do with the players being state Beamter – civil servants with a safe pension. Although this was a public rehearsal, several players dressed as if they were out gardening – one violinist in a loud, checked shirt, another in short sleeves, a harpist in an orange sweatshirt with a red jumper thrown over the back of her chair. Attentively as they played, the attitude was all wrong. With a chance to command a world stage, the orchestra turned out so casually as to suggest lack of ambition. Perhaps they were mis-advised.

A trivial detail? I don’t think so. These signs register a statement of intent. Smart declares aspiration. Shlokhy says, who gives? Barenboim should bring his tailor to the next rehearsal. It would be a shame if the excellence he has achieved were not to be given the best frame.

BBC Radio 3 will relay all of the Beethoven-Schoenberg concerts over the next week or so. Already at the opening rehearsal there was a sense of something numinous in the making.