LSO/Barenboim, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Daniel Barenboim's programme of both Brahms piano concertos in a single evening was long awaited.

Daniel Barenboim's programme of both Brahms piano concertos in a single evening was long awaited. Some of those who looked forward most will have been recalling the definitive London encounter of musician and composer two years ago. On that occasion, Barenboim was the conductor when he and the Berlin Staatskapelle played all the symphonies on two nights. Its revelatory feature was that this orchestral music went with the fire, freedom and layering of inner parts that Barenboim brings to his piano playing. So expectations for the solo appearance ran high.

Nor did it disappoint. With Antonio Pappano conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, the introduction of the First Concerto was steady, at times intense, but on the whole more lyrical than fierce. As soon as Barenboim began to play, the experience of the music was transfigured. It's a quiet arrival, but here it was full of restless energy, ebbing and flowing, possessed of a powerful sense of direction. A massive weight of tone soon made itself felt, yet Barenboim used the power of his left hand to create a dialogue with the right.

Barenboim took a similar line in the even more demanding Second Concerto. Brahms's legendary technical obstacles - he seems to have expected a finger span about 50 per cent wider than normal - did not prevent Barenboim from charging fearlessly into the sustained crescendos that run up to the first movement's two main climaxes. The sheer impossibility of playing evenly at this pace made it all the more exciting, so that the music struggled against human limits in a way usually associated with Beethoven.

In an ideal world, Barenboim would also have been the conductor, bringing the same vision to the orchestral parts. Unfortunately, they are too complex to be directed from the keyboard. Pappano may have been a protégé of Barenboim's in opera conducting, but he had a diametrically different way with this music. If you were charitable, you could say that he supplied the sensuality to balance the soloist's severity.

For the first few minutes it looked as though the performances might become a confrontation rather than a collaboration, but Barenboim soon proved to be the dominant influence. The sound Pappano drew from the LSO was beautiful in its own right, and the quietest episodes, above all the Second Concerto's Andante, eventually found a like-minded approach in their withdrawn stillness.

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