Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 25, 2018

The dramatic opening of Brahms’s First Symphony, underpinned by thundering heartbeat from the timpani, ushered in a thrilling concert by maestro Daniel Barenboim – his first appearance in Australia since 1970 – and his Staatskapelle Berlin on Sunday night. The concert was the first of three at the Sydney Opera House in which the conductor presents a complete Brahms Symphony cycle, before rounding out the run with Beethoven’s Eroica and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony on Tuesday. This concert more than proved that the audience is in good hands for the journey, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle giving a masterful performance highlighting the different personalities of Brahms’s first two symphonies.

Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin, BrahmsDaniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Peter Adamik

While this first program was advertised as starting with the Second, Brahms’s First Symphony – which had a famously difficult birth, the composer agonising over the long shadow cast by Beethoven’s Ninth – was a powerful, and apt, work with which to kick off the cycle. With antiphonal violins and eight double basses arrayed across the back wall, Barenboim drew a sound of incredible depth from the Staatskapelle, giving a flexible reading of the First that stretched the quieter moments and pulled them taut in the crescendos. Commanding on the podium, Barenboim often led with the smallest of movements, practically motionless in the movement’s broad finish until he bloomed in the sunny final bars.

The lush Andante sostenuto saw Barenboim draw out the strings even further, Concertmaster Wolfram Brandl’s wide, shining vibrato ringing out over the orchestra, while the third movement flowed swiftly, coloured by the winds, the syncopated strings surging forward and the balance such that the moving layers – often obscured by the melody – highlighted Brahms’s vibrant, complex textures.

The drama returned in force in the fourth movement, creeping pizzicato from the strings fuelling the excitement and Hanno Westphal’s horn solo dark-edged, echoed in bright, shimmering vibrato by Claudia Stein’s flute. The movement’s hymn-like melody, with its whiff of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (“Any jackass can see that!” griped Brahms), was played with gusto, the finale blazing (despite the cries of a child just behind the orchestra). Gregor Witt’s oboe solos were a highlight throughout the First Symphony, the oboist holding back until he crested the rise with a singing timbre in the first movement and leaning into the freedom Barenboim allowed him in the second, without pushing it too far, lightly riding the pulsing strings.

Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle Berlin, BrahmsDaniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Peter Adamik

Much has been made of the contrast between Brahms’s fiery First Symphony and the more pastoral Second, composed on its heels and comparatively painlessly in a single summer at Pörtschach am Wörthersee, where according to Brahms, “the melodies are flying so thick that one must be careful not to step on one.”

It was this idyllic atmosphere that Barenboim emphasised in this Symphony, over the darker mood that haunts its edges, the conductor revelling in the long, drawn-out – and exquisitely shaped – phrases. The Allegro non troppo was very much on the non troppo side, the rich sound of cellos and violas introducing the ‘lullaby’ theme, the flute sinuous and horn lines sweeter-toned than in the First Symphony. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the last bars of this movement played with such jollity, Barenboim smiling on the podium.

Barenboim sustained the tranquil atmosphere he created in the first movement into the Adagio, with horns and winds immaculate as ever, and the urgent lines passed from cellos to violin expansive rather than fierce in this rendition, the bassoon (like the funerary trombones) hinting at a deeper drama below the surface. The third movement was wistful – just short of sombre – in the opening before scurrying strings introduced a sprite-like energy. This playfulness carried into the finale, where Barenboim milked the lyrical moments but maintained a lightness to offset the majestic figures, giving all a sense of zest and enthusiasm and driving home the final chord with a cry. It’s not often you hear Brahms like this.

Daniel Barenboim conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin in Brahms’s Symphonies 3 & 4 on November 26, and Beethoven’s Eroica and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony on November 27 at the Sydney Opera House


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