Music: Three Bs are the bee's knees

THE THREE Bs of music underwent a slight revision this week at the Festival Hall where Bach, Beethoven and Brahms became - for one of the most prestigious concert series London has seen in ages - Barenboim, Beethoven and Berlin.

The Berlin here is the venerably ancient Berlin Staatskapelle from the old East sector of the city. The Beethoven is a mega-cycle of all the symphonies plus all the piano concertos. And Daniel Barenboim is the trump card: a wanderer returning to the city where he was once dazzlingly resident but is now seen only rarely - especially at the keyboard. So in every sense this cycle is an event, and it started on Tuesday with performances of the 1st Concerto and 3rd (Eroica) Symphony that Barenboim's unflustered, all-controlling presence as conductor/pianist made look all too easy.

Directing the concerto from the keyboard, he was on his feet for almost as much time as he was sitting down, but with the cool self-organisation of a man who mastered this sort of double job back in the 1960s when he was directing the English Chamber Orchestra in Mozart cycles. And a stance more obviously intense or driven would in any case have been alien to the Staatskapelle, which is one of those old Soviet-bloc orchestras whose distinctive, local style of playing has been preserved by decades of closed borders and cultural isolation. While Western ensembles edged towards a standard international sound, dictated by the record industry and favouring brilliant, clean, precise attack, the Eastern orchestras maintained a warmer, softer, more caressing sound which, in the case of the Staatskapelle, not only survives but has been positively nurtured by Barenboim since he became its music director in 1992.

So what we heard this week at the Festival Hall was Beethoven at its most mellow, without "edge" and with legato- smoothness a priority: the antithesis of the super-charged Beethoven you'd hear from someone like John Eliot Gardiner, whose approach (Barenboim would argue) desensitises audiences to the linear, tonal journey which is the chief concern of classical symphonic writing. Percussive brilliance (he'd continue) is all very well as short-term, "vertical" stimulation, but in the broader scheme of things it's a distraction from the more important "horizontal" tour through tonal schemes.

This argument has force, and it was borne out by the beauty, interest and warmth of what we heard on Tuesday. We were not desensitised by brilliance. But the endless dolce had its limitations, and there were moments when a touch of Gardiner sharpness would have been welcome - not least, to keep the ensemble together and more accurate. With sometimes thin sound, blowsy horns and questionable intonation, it was what I'd call a night of compromise. Worthwhile but not ideal.

That said, I liked the physical commitment in the Staatskapelle playing here. And Barenboim's own playing was a model of legato style without the drawbacks, beautifully tempered and balanced against the accompaniment. The symphony could have been more fun in the finale but otherwise wore its grandeur with engaging lightness. And if the audience missed the bite of "period" attack, they didn't show it. The response was rapturous.

Last week, in a fascinating piece of social archaelogy, the surviving heads of the great Central European dynasties were brought together in Vienna for a concert to mark the bicentenary of Haydn's oratorio Die Schopfung (The Creation), first performed before a private audience of their ancestors in 1798. The venue for this bicentennial performance was the Palace at Eisenstadt, an hour's drive from Vienna and one of the two Esterhazy houses in which Haydn spent some 30 years of his life as resident kapellmeister.

The conductor was Adam Fischer. And the forces involved included the specialist Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra which Fischer set up 12 years ago as an exercise in cross-border cultural politics. In Haydn's time, of course, there was no border, and this part of central Europe where the composer lived and worked was a productive melting-pot of East/West cultures. Now, a frontier cuts the area in two, leaving the Esterhazy houses in separate countries. Fischer's idea was to reunite them in a shared Haydn Festival with its own ensemble diplomatically drawn from players in Budapest and Vienna. And since then the Haydn Orchestra has established itself as a conspicuous curiosity of European music- making, with a growing discography and a rolling contract to record the complete Haydn symphonies - all 107 - for Nimbus.

I say curiosity because the orchestra is itself a melting-pot, of styles and cultures. The Hungarians contribute their old-tyme Central-European ways, the Austrians their 19th-century glamour; and to that volatile mix Fischer adds a sprinkling of period instruments and period disciplines, holding everything together with a strong, incisive emphasis on drama. This Creation was electrifying: bold in scale and handsome in the rich acoustic of the great assembly hall at Eisenstadt. That Haydn would himself have known the space and sound so well gave it an added resonance. A sort of imprimatur, and material for the imagination.

I wish I could say something similar for Brighton Pavilion where the baritone Christopher Maltman gave a recital on Monday as part of the Brighton Festival. But I can't. The Pavilion is of course an extraordinary building, but its music room makes an oppressive concert space, stifled by chinoiserie, dead in sound and spirit - all of which made it hard for Maltman to project the star quality you'll know he possesses if you heard him win the last Cardiff Singer Lieder prize on television. It's a lovely voice, intelligently used and with a keen, engaging personality. At Brighton, with the masterly accompaniment of Malcolm Martineau, it worked particularly well in songs by Faure and Ravel, catching the mood and colour beautifully and marking Maltman's card as someone destined for French repertory. But in that ghastly room he couldn't float a line with ease; and as he tried, his focus tended to retract into the middle-distance, losing contact with his audience. A better venue and I'm sure he'd give us all a better show.

Barenboim: RFH, SE1 (0171 960 4242), Fri, Sat & Sun 17 May. Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra: Barbican, EC2 (0171 638 8891), 22 June. Brighton Festival (01273 709709), to 24 May.

News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

    salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

    Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

    Day In a Page

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower