The Berlin Philharmonic European Concert 2010, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
The Berlin Philharmonic European Concert 2010, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
Thunderous optimism in the annual Europe concert by the crack German players
As concert-goers arrived, Morris men were gathered at the pub opposite; a student with dyed hair drunkenly wished us a merry morning, and all seemed right with the world. Never for long, as Daniel Barenboim of all conductors knows only too well, but all the more reason for him to send the orchestra thundering towards the final optimism of Brahms's First Symphony, leaving us jelly-limbed and open-mouthed.
I've never heard anything quite like it. Bows flew, strings sounded as if they might have snapped; even the orchestra was taken aback by the Dionysiac frenzy Barenboim had pulled out of the bag at the last minute. It wasn't up to that point the most radical of interpretations: all earth and fire, little air and water, Barenboim didn't always make the phrases fly. For that you'd have to go back to the Abbado era in Berlin, or Jurowski's drastic rethink at last year's Proms.
Yet the sound of it had to be heard to be believed. That was clear from the first opening consolation of horns in the Wagner prelude. Later little flecks of colour - gurgling woodwind, a couple of bars of deeply significant clarinet phrases in an otherwise string-laden slow movement - gilded the nut-brown colour of Elgar's Cello Concerto. You couldn't get away with a lazy entry in the revealing acoustics of the Sheldonian Theatre, and yet the BPO never felt cramped here; their sound is innately rather than explicitly forceful.
There was an added, unspoken frisson in seeing a vivacious young cellist play the melancholy old man of the Elgar under Barenboim's direction. To begin with, I thought Alisa Weilerstein (pictured right) would be as passionately extrovert as Jacqueline Du Pré - a legendary interpretation, of course, but by no means the whole introspective story. Yet she reined in for the great Adagio, working in close collaboration with her ever-sensitive orchestral colleagues to make every settling on a home key a little miracle.
At first the Brahms symphony felt rather more externalised; it took the searing oboe work of co-principal Jonathan Kelly to bring the necessary tears to the eyes. Nice, too, to see Daishin Kashimoto's co-front-desker pat his knee in warm congratulation of his soaring solo at the end of the slow movement. Barenboim did find a lightness in the intermezzo-like sequel, but at first seemed to be driving too hard in the finale as the clouds parted for the horn solo and the big string tune in the finale.
From the development onwards, the intensity went up and onwards to that final dithyramb. Hardened critics were shaking; and I certainly haven't heard the orchestra play this well live since Abbado's Brahms Third at the Proms. Go figure. The only pity of it was that while many European countries broadcast the event live on television and radio today, the BBC has it on hold for future transmission. Am I surprised?
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more Classical music
Among the Christmas staples, it's a relief to find an imaginative take on a different theme
Hymning the human in a Nielsen masterpiece and the cosmic in a psychedelic epic by Busoni
Six of 2014's best seasonal releases
French Baroque specialists take musical journey around early 18th-century Europe
An earthbound Messiah lacks wonder and urgency
Christmas music from far and wide glowingly sung by a young, rising, gifted British choir
Dream team for Birtwistle, while the pianist shines in Ligeti and Messiaen
The Hilliards and Garbarek know how to play the building
Birtwistle’s new Piano Concerto dazzles, but that's only one course in an orchestral feast
Tribute showcases a master of both the miniature and the monumental
Russian symphonies, a seasonal ballet and a Norwegian guitarist's debut disc
Exhilarating gloom in the young Rachmaninov's First Symphony redeems hazy Scriabin