The near twinning and half rhyming of two composers, conductors, pianists and German orchestras brought binary zing to the final week of the BBC Proms. This was ahead of any flag-waving pleasures or protests last night’s Last Night might have provoked – too late for this column. Daniel Barenboim, a master of Austro-German repertoire as well as much else, was back in the Albert Hall for the second time this season, this time with his Staatskapelle Berlin. Then Christian Thielemann, himself a Berliner and a master of that same kind of Austro-German repertory, though of little besides, conducted his Staatskapelle Dresden.
Both conductors, political in different ways, lead the world as Wagnerians. Thielemann is a brilliant exponent of Richard Strauss, whereas Barenboim seems to prefer Johann I or II, the waltzing ones. Barenboim has notched up 41 proms, having given his first in 1966. Thielemann (b1959) was making his Proms debut. The Dresden orchestra was founded in 1548. Its Berlin counterpart traces its origins back to just 22 years later. So much for data.
The habit of matching a Mozart piano concerto with a Bruckner symphony is hardly new. The contrasts in length and texture work well. In Prom 69, Barenboim was soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor, K491, dramatic and bursting with fruity woodwind conversation, and in the No 26 in D major, K537 “Coronation” (Prom 70), more puzzling and ear-twisting in its blithe ambiguity. With the piano (a hired Steinway) positioned facing into the orchestra, back to the arena prommers, he mostly stood to conduct, occasionally jabbing one or other spare arm as required when playing. The gesture seemed needless, so intimate was the understanding between the pianist-director and his formidable ensemble.
The Berlin Staatskapelle has a warm, grainy sound, more about patina than gloss and the better for it. In each Mozart concerto the slow movements stood out, for a sense of timeless leisure, as if untethered from beat or bar line. The outer movements had elegance and breadth. Given the no-vibrato, pumping preference of period instrument performances, this won’t have suited all tastes. If the performance persuades, which these did, that’s enough. At times Barenboim appeared to invent the music himself. To some extent he did. In K491 he played his own cadenza (Mozart tended to improvise those moments of solo virtuosity). In the “Coronation”, Barenboim used the vigorous cadenzas of Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), a pioneer of 18th-century keyboard practice. Barenboim brings his own personal historicity to performances.
Comparing Barenboim, 73, with Daniil Trifonov, 25, is no more useful that pitting Prospero against Ariel. Hearing them on consecutive nights, the temptation is strong. Trifonov was soloist in Mozart’s C major concerto No 21, K467, in the first of Thielemann’s concerts (Prom 71) with the Dresden Staatskapelle. All began well, piano back in the traditional sideways-on place, Thielemann a towering figure – to UK audiences old-fashioned in the cut of his full-length tail coat – on the podium. The long opening of this ever-popular work builds a particularly keen sense of anticipation, from hushed strings at the start, to sturdy woodwind interjections and a play of upward scales and downward responses before the bassoon, then the flute prepare us for the piano’s solo entry.
This gave ample chance to sample the Dresden orchestra’s silken, integrated sound and flexibility. Trifonov matched this with playing of extreme lightness and dexterity, hallmarks of this young Russian pianist. Unfortunately towards the end of the first movement something unravelled, first some skipped notes in a fast arpeggiated passage, then several entire lost bars in which he turned in anxious hope towards Thielemann, then eventual recovery and a resolute rush to the finish. Hunched over the piano, Trifonov looked shattered, but mistakes happen to anyone under the bright lights of live performance. More disquieting were the pianist’s own cadenzas, a whistlestop journey through later pianistic tropes, as well as Mozart’s own, which toppled the music’s innate equilibrium. Trifonov regained his poise and played a Prokofiev encore for the cheering crowd.
The rest was Bruckner. His great, ambitious works wear their weaknesses as badges of humanity. It’s hard to argue the case for this oddball composer if he’s not your thing, but his music runs through the bloodstream of both these orchestras. Given the block-like writing, these symphonies stand up well in the fuzzy acoustic of the Albert Hall. One of the most touching aspects of Anton Bruckner’s life story – many details were on the dark side; sex, death (look him up) – is that much of his musical education came from a six-year correspondence course. It is hard to imagine what this meant in Upper Austria in the middle of the 19th century, though apparently the post was pretty efficient at that time. He made devoted studies of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, weaving these towering influences into enormous symphonies and emerging as a singular, eccentric yet magnificent voice in the process.
The Berlin orchestra and Barenboim, double basses ranged round the back next to the timpani, excelled in the Fourth, “Romantic”, an endless revised glory of brass chorales, misty, distant horn calls and simple, repeated but visionary string melodies. The next night the Sixth Symphony, less familiar but for some of us the best in its dark-light mystery, had rougher edges, but the magical slow movement more than compensated.
Thielemann and the Dresdeners played the Third Symphony, a catastrophe at its premiere and again much rewritten (they used the 1876-7 Nowak edition), but here radiant and majestic, clean ensemble giving a welcome illusion of structural clarity. Thielemann bestrides the podium with an almost lordly grandeur as if surveying his estate. At the same time his gestures are graceful and immediate. In the flickering, pastoral Scherzo, he suddenly dropped his shoulders and lolled from side to side, joining in Bruckner’s quirky clog dance with a flash of wit. And was that, perhaps, a smile? No space to do more than mention two other final week highlights: the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra playing Ravel with Gustavo Dudamel (Prom 67), and the Multi-Story Orchestra playing Steve Reich in Peckham car park. Whether Peckham has put the Proms on the map or the other way round depends on your point of view.