thu 21/01/2021

The Berlin Philharmonic European Concert 2010, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford | reviews, news & interviews

The Berlin Philharmonic European Concert 2010, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

The Berlin Philharmonic European Concert 2010, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

Thunderous optimism in the annual Europe concert by the crack German players

"Madness! Madness! Everywhere madness!" The unsung words of cobbler-philosopher Hans Sachs in the third-act prelude to Wagner's Die Meistersinger might seem like an odd opening manifesto for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's annual May Day ceremonial concert this morning, hosted this year by Oxford in the gorgeous venue where the Berliners had last played under Karajan a very long time ago. But there was method in it. Whether or not Oxford's traditional May Day eve revels last night had any drunken brawl as threatening as the one which set Sachs meditating on human folly there was certainly a bacchanalian atmosphere outside the Sheldonian - and even more to be found inside.

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.

Alisa_Weilerstein_cellistYet 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?


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Excellent concert. I have to admit that I saw the concert last week in Berlin and the Oxford perfomance only on TV (living in Berlin and being a visiting fellow at Cambridge University it obviously was impossible for me to come to Oxford...). Even though I still prefer Abbado's 'singing' Brahms (for me his Berlin Brahms cycle in 1995/96 was even more sensational than his outstanding Mahler perfomances) to Barenboim's rough and edgy interpretation, but I agree with David that this was still the best from this orchestra since Abbado left in 2002 (there was one excellent Brahms concert with Thielemann two years ago but that is it). Barenboim is a great musician and live performer and has the great ability to make you forget for one or two hours that classical music is mainly based on reproduction rather than on creation. It is a pitty that the BPhO rarely go on tour with other conductors. So, instead of waiting for another three decades why don't you come to Berlin from time to time and listen to some concerts of the BPhO or the Staatskapelle ? Best wishes from Berlin Jan

Thanks, Jan, and agreed on all points. It was my bad luck the last time I was in Berlin to catch your wonderful orchestra under its present music director. Much as Sir Simon has achieved some good things, and bits of all his BPO recordings have been interesting, any work he conducts these days never totally flies for me, and that concert included the worst performance I ever hope to hear of Ravel's Sheherezade by Magdalena Kozena (poor French, poor phrasing, poor style). So next time I must plan a visit around a concert with a really good visiting conductor...and make sure I hear the Staatskapelle as well. If I might add a little footnote here about an astonishing day in Oxford, the next visitors waiting to take over the Sheldonian were the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightnment, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Schola Cantorum. What I managed to hear of an afternoon rehearsal - chiefly Handel's staggering Dixit Dominus - was almost as wonderful in its way.

Sounds like it was a fantastic concert - wish I could have been there. The EuroArts DVD label will be releasing this concert in September.

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