Bavarian Radio Symphony

Orchestra / Berlin Staatskapelle

Barbican, London

After his Harnoncourt, Bruggen and Norrington treatments of recent years, Beethoven has come full circle the last fortnight, back to his romantic roots as a vehicle for finely drilled display on the part of conductors and orchestras. Firstly, on the last Thursday in April, came Lorin Maazel and the Orchestra to the Barbican, with the Seventh Symphony and young prodigy Hilary Hahn in the Violin Concerto. Then, a week later at the Festival Hall, Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle also gave the Seventh, with Barenboim soloist in the Third Piano Concerto as part of their ongoing symphonic and concerto cycle.

While two centuries from his birth we're still far from taking Beethoven for granted, conductors, it is often said, have lost something of their glamour. True, there are certainly more than ever to go round; but the best, surely, remain no worse than their forebears, remarkable musicians like Stokowski and Furtwangler, who were very good indeed.

Both Maazel and Barenboim fit this bill, earning their status with the unique visions they bring to musical masterworks. Maazel, for example, not only commands a vast repertoire, but is also a composer, currently writing a symphony for the Vienna Philharmonic. As Principal Conductor of the Bavarian Orchestra, he drove the band through a violent Egmont Overture, complete familiarity with music and players enabling him to dispense with the score. Giving the soloist a master accompanist's support in the Violin Concerto, he was clearly happy to yield centre stage to Hahn, an 18-year old with Jane Austen ringlets and a tone so pure of intonation that the slightest vibrato seemed like a moral outrage.

Maazel, besides, was saving his show for Beethoven's Seventh. In contrast, Barenboim was Apollo to his Dionysus. While Maazel beefed up his woodwind four by four - helped by the Barbican's meaty acoustic - Barenboim was content with Beethoven's double wind. The difference showed in the Seventh's resonant opening played by Maazel for every ounce of majesty, and by Barenboim drily, yet with oboe and clarinet lines like shining gossamer.

Elsewhere, when both conductors went for speed, Maazel won hands down. In the finale, he was also victorious in podium virtuosity. But was Barenboim's the more interesting performance? In its leaner sound and tension, his reading certainly seemed more radical. In the way his Berliners applied themselves to the grinding ostinato at the end of the first movement, you could grasp Weber's famous point about Beethoven's being ripe for the madhouse. For sheer thrills, however, Maazel and his highly proficient Bavarians had the edge, both here and in the slow movement's high solemnity.

What Barenboim has is the power of symbol, a spirit of the age for which his standing ovation was in part a recognition. His Third Concerto was lucid and harmonious, a reading honed to perfection over many years. Soloist, conductor; about the only thing he's not done is compose. Now how would his own music sound, I wonder?

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