PROM 69 DANIEL BARENBOIM soloist and conductor with STAATSKAPELLE BERLIN, September 5, 2016, Royal Albert Hall

The Proms is offering three evenings pairing a Mozart piano concerto with a Bruckner symphony. Anton certainly admired Wolfgang  but then who didn’t? We have evidence that he studied some of Mozart’s scores in detail, but what lessons did he learn? Daniel Barenboim is in charge of the first two concerts. Not only does he play and conduct the Mozart concertos, he also directs Bruckner’s symphonies without a score.

I used to meditate and at times even doze off while listening to Barenboim’s recordings of the Mozart piano concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra. For many years they were the gold standard as far as I was concerned. That was some 30 years ago and since then I have of course discovered many other interpretations. As a preparation and a mark of respect I should have listened to my old box of Mozart/Barenboim vinyls. My only excuse is that the I don’t own a record player. I will rectify that soon. But nothing beats hearing classical music performed live and on top of that by one of the living legends of the keyboard.

Mozart composed very few works in a minor key and only two of his piano concertos have that distinction. In those days, 1786, you had to have a pretty good reason for writing in a minor key and many commentators conclude that No.24 in C minor is tinged with sadness. That is not what I hear. There certainly is an element of contemplation and stillness in the work. I interpret this as a brief mental hold-up, a time to reflect, after a period of hectic and immense productivity. By the time Mozart completed K 491 he had produced 11 piano concertos in 2 ½ years. While working on the piano concerto he was, among other projects, developing The Marriage of Figaro and rewriting Idomeneo for a revival.

Mozart increased the number of musicians in the orchestra to a record amount for a concerto and contemporary audiences must have experienced the sound as, well, pretty LOUD. The opening movement of No.24 starts with a hesitantly unfolding question mark that makes use of all the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Mozart added more wind instruments than usual for this concerto and the clarinets, bassoons, oboes, trumpets, horns and single flute have their work cut for them. The strings and the piano are often given the task of responding. The Staatskapelle Berlin rises to the occasion as one would expect of one of Berlin’s finest and Germany’s oldest orchestras. If there is a darkness at the heart of this piece Barenboim interprets it as twilight.

No lid, so I can see all of yous. So watch it! BBC/Chris Christodoulou
No lid, so I can see all of yous. So watch it!
BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Barenboim plays on a concert grand without a lid to allow the sound to flow freely. He sits with his back facing the audience. The Argentinian pianist makes the solo part seem effortless and surprisingly often manages to conduct with his left hand while playing with his right. In the original (which can be studied at the British Library’s site or at the Royal College of Music which owns an annotated original score) there are many uncharacteristic corrections and mistakes. Mozart clearly took his time with this work, but even so the solo part isn’t completely written out and it is left to the interpreter to fill in bits and pieces., including the cadenza (the ‘original’ is non-existant). This suggests that the composer, who also was the original soloist, would have improvised a decent amount during performances. But Barenboim never appears to make it up as he goes and he could play this concerto backwards, I am sure. The first movement is handled with care and the wind instruments provide particular finesse. The descending spire of the piano score suggests a melancholic mode. One of Barenboim’s great strengths is his capacity to transmit a velvety warmth through the ivories and the wires. In the central movement that quality dominates.

The third movement consists of eight variations . The cascades of notes can quickly become mechanical and the wealth of themes can trigger musical overload. Barenboim kept it vibrant without allowing for vapid virtuosity. In the end it all spins into a furious and very sudden coda that never fails to take me by surprise.

My only problem with the whole performance was that it almost seemed too smooth and that is maybe why the mood never became particularly dark. But at this, the very highest, level of musicianship you still will be treated to a very enjoyable half an hour of music, even if it isn’t your favourite cup of char.

Can you hear Bach-Gounod's Ave Maria in this?
Can you hear Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria?

After the interval we were treated to Bruckner 4. Barenboim has recorded the work many times over and most recently with this orchestra ( of which he is the lifetime Chief Conductor). I don’t hear obvious parallels between Mozart and Bruckner ( Wagner is a much more obvious influence), but there are smilarities in moood at the start of both the works on this concert programme. At the opening  of No.4 in E flat major there is an element of trepidation with the solo horn quietly guiding us into a Medieval town covered in the mists of dawn. Yes, there is sense of uncertainty here as well, reminiscent of the opening of Mozart’s Piano concerto.
But when the counterpointing woodwind starts clearing the fog we are already moving into a different territory, which Bruckner unfortunately himself labelled as ‘romantic’. The symphony is n more romantic than any symphony by Mahler or even Sibelius. But just like Jean he made the mistake of providinh the work with an idyllic programme, which stuck.  One can hear Nature in the work, but God’s hand is a much stronger force in this work and I believe Barenboim gets that.
The original building block for this particular monument to God’s greatness is the descending fifth. It is there prominently at the start and in every single movement, We travel from sunrise to night and along the way we meet depression, loneliness, Nature’s majestic bliss and the glory Bruckner found in God. Barenboim is a great Wagnerian but he doesn’t overegg the referenches to the German composer in the Andante, quasi allegretto part. There was some very loud coughing towards the end of this movement and I am not sure if that was the reason that Barenboim briefly walked off stage before starting the Scherzo.  This slight pause did seem to invigorate both him and the orchestra. The hunting scene and the slow seductive Ländler came alive. We were firmly in the Austro-Hungarian  countryside and you can imagine Mahler scribbling down notes
The last movement came to Bruckner in a dream and there is an element of Bach’s St John ‘s Passion, and the compser’s never ending ending quest for the truth in God through music. Anton struggled with the form of the movement and there were  at least three revisions. Which one Barenboim opted for at this Prom,  I am not entirely sure, but I can assure you that it was not Benjamin Korstvedt’s edition.

Barenboim and the Staatskapelle built a magnificent cathedral out of this symphony, and the few missing details were well hidden in the interior. The wildly enthusiastic Prommers would have been no less happy with a little Gothic country church, they couldn’t get enough of the maestro and applauded until the cows came home.