In this series of concerts pairing Beethoven’s piano concertos with orchestral works by Arnold Schoenberg, Daniel Barenboim has found an inspired way of linking two musical revolutionaries who, though separated by centuries, are nevertheless kindred spirits.

The implication of this shared billing is that what Schoenberg did for the music of Brahms and Wagner, Beethoven did for the music of Haydn and Mozart – he made it ‘breathe the air of other planets’.  As if to underline these affinities, tonight in the Five Orchestral Pieces, Barenboim points up the underlying romanticism of Schoenberg’s string writing, which even as it leaves traditional harmonic language behind, is full of echoes of the 19th century.

This series of orchestral miniatures dates from before Schoenberg began to reign in his free-floating chromaticism by introducing the twelve-tone system that would lead to the formal constraints of Serialism.  Loosed from the moorings of tonality, these pieces are shimmering and exotic, with none of the dryness of later works.  In the elegiac solo cello and viola of the second piece, for example, there’s beauty enough to appease the most conservative of ears.

But, judging by the tenor of conversations overheard during the intermission, these century-old compositions can still provoke perplexity in modern audiences. Though essentially introspective, they are also by turns witty, bawdy, barbed and visceral.  As stabs of dissonant brass jolt us in our seats, it’s clear Schoenberg still has the power to shock and unsettle.

Barenboim and the superb Berlin Staatskapelle seem utterly at home in this music, and able to flit between the sound-worlds of the respective progenitors of Romanticism and Modernism with ease.  The pleasure Barenboim, conducting from the piano with some wonderfully flamboyant gestures, takes in the verve and wit of Beethoven’s second concerto is palpable. This music is in his blood. He conducts without a score, playing with the spontaneous air of a man observed through his living room window on a Sunday afternoon.

For the fourth concerto, arguably Beethoven’s greatest, we’re in for an altogether different order of music-making.  As Barenboim launches into the darkly mysterious opening, we are instantly reminded of just how daring this music was, and of how modern much of it still sounds. With its epic scale, its filigree light and shade, and its superabundance of harmonic invention, the Fourth is like many concertos within one – a dazzling tumult of ideas perfectly realised.

While Barenboim relishes the virtuoso passagework, his approach is the antitheses of the steely precision of a Pollini – his Beethoven is all about flow, with an unerring and irresistible sense of pulse. He gets better and better, dashing off a scintillating take on the first movement cadenza and showing rapt concentration and poise in the magnificent slow movement. Come the third movement Vivace, Barenboim is on fire, and by the time he hits the last note he’s won himself a lengthy and unanimous standing ovation.

Star as he is, during the peaks in tonight’s performance, one stopped thinking of Barenboim altogether and thought only of Beethoven, as if the composer himself were at the piano. And that is the most we can ask of any musician.

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