Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 27, 2018

With his Brahms Symphony cycle out of the way, Daniel Barenboim‘s third and final concert in Sydney with the Staatskapelle Berlin was a chance to explore some different repertoire, presenting the two movements of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Symphony No 3, Eroica.

Daniel Barenboim, Staatskapelle BerlinDaniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Peter Adamik

With a smaller orchestra (only six double basses, instead of the eight for the Brahms), in the Schubert we heard a more delicate Staatskapelle, Barenboim coaxing the first movement’s tenebrous opening out of a silent concert hall, the oboe solo silky smooth. The title page of Schubert’s Unfinished dates it at 1822, over 50 years before Brahms’s First Symphony had its premiere, and Barenboim highlighted both the work’s Classical elegance and its shadowy mystery, the conductor daringly bringing the lower strings down right to the very edge of silence. From the first movement’s sombre final chords, the Andante was delicate and sunny, clarinet weaving over strings and Barenboim splashing little accents that rippled across the strings. The more turbulent passages were insistent without becoming overbearing, a deft balance of power and restraint.

After the heavy banquet of the Brahms concerts, the Schubert was a light refreshment, whetting the audience’s appetite for the Beethoven after interval. With the orchestra once more at full strength, the opening accents of the Allegro had plenty of punch before Barenboim dropped the dynamic right back again, launching into a detailed account notable for its agile strings (led by Concertmaster Jiyoon Lee), sustained energy and meticulous clarity, the string sound leaner than in the impassioned Brahms symphonies. The clarity Barenboim wrung from the Staatskapelle worked wonders on the fugue sections in the Marcia funebre and the finale. The Marcia funebre was perhaps the pinnacle of the whole concert, Barenboim drawing a dark sound from the violins, basses looming, bassoon melancholy, in a profoundly elegiac, magisterial reading. Here again Barenboim was not afraid to embrace the silences, the strings whisper-quiet in the final moments before the cellos tore through them. The Scherzo fizzed with energy, the strings quiet but swift before Barenboim roared into the crescendos. Brilliant passages from the horns were a highlight in this movement, which Barenboim drove Attacca into the fourth movement. This was a quick and energetic performance to bring out every detail in the score – highlighting details perhaps previously unheard – the wind moments particularly fine, and the final bars joyous and boisterous.

While this coda to the Brahms cycle didn’t quite carry the same weight and grandeur as the previous two concerts, it was nonetheless a pleasure to hear this amazing ensemble in some different repertoire. The Beethoven in particular was a thrilling and revelatory performance. We can only hope – despite Barenboim’s jokes – that we won’t have to wait another 48 years before the maestro returns to Australia.