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Clash of the titans

Pierre Boulez conducts Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle.

With Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez - titans of the classical world - sharing a stage, the question of musical dominance was always going to arise. While a programme of Liszt piano concertos promised the traditional rivalry between soloist and orchestra, it was the altogether quieter rivalry of soloist and conductor that proved more compelling in performance, as Boulez's restraint and precision faced off with Barenboim's expressive showmanship.

Conducting Barenboim's own orchestra, the Berlin Staatskapelle, Boulez was always going to be at a disadvantage. Often directed by Barenboim from the piano, you could hardly blame the players for responding to their director's gestures and barely-concealed cues, yielding two concertos that while solid enough, lacked the energy that comes from absolute clarity and specificity of interpretation.

The contrast between the two musicians was encoded into the programme itself, with the bravura of Liszt's concertos framed in each half by one of Wagner's orchestral works. With Barenboim absent the hall lost much of its rather manic electricity, but while even Boulez's control couldn't lend substance to the youthful indiscretion that is the Faust Overture, his clean textures made something unusual of the Siegfried Idyll.

The Staatskapelle's smooth-edged sound is a miracle of many years' making, and the tenderness of Wagner's birthday gift to his wife offered a sympathetic vehicle for this peculiar sweetness. Originally (and pragmatically) scored for just 15 musicians, Wagner's Idyll here enjoyed slightly expanded orchestration, allowing for the scope and rather awkward acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall auditorium. Its spirit however remained resolutely that of a chamber performance, balancing intimacy (the most vulnerable of string pianissimos) with Boulez' habitual emotional coolness. The result was oddly exhilarating, its passions (and there were plenty) keener for being hard-won.

Hearing Boulez conduct such repertoire is only more fascinating than it is bizarre. While his musical boundaries have broadened considerably in recent years, encompassing Wagner and Mahler, such Romantic extremes as the Liszt concertos represent new territory, encountered for the very first time in the current concert tour. It was only natural then that Barenboim should take the lead here, his personality pounded hard into the keyboard and flung out at the eager audience.

The impact of the Piano Concerto No. 2 may have been enough to reduce Matthew Arnold to the "sweetest, bitterest tears", but I'd imagine few were tempted to that condition last night. While the woodwind offered a suitably moody opening, and instrumental solos (exquisite cello in particular) tugged plaintively at the heartstrings, there was a thrust and force to Barenboim's playing that spoke briskly of action rather than contemplation. At his bravura finest in the dramatic authority of the Marziale, it was his textural contributions - the delicate moments of arpeggiation and motivic dialogue - that reminded me of his musical intelligence and maturity.

There was no ignoring however the intrusive smudge of the sustaining pedal, blurring much of the passagework and clouding the tone of the RFH's Steinway. It was an issue that persisted in the E flat concerto, where it was again balanced by the Mozartian lyricism of the Allegretto, hands unfolding themselves into flurries of filmy ornamentation.

Yet rather like the infamous solo triangle, placed rather intrusively centre-stage at Barenboim's left elbow, something still jarred about this performance. While the finale was an Olympian parade of muscular will, its scope and volume seemed alienated from the earlier movements, a trumpet-call of victory without the validation of a battle. Barenboim is surely unequalled among pianists for visual drama and musical personality, impressing them upon score and audience with equal authority, yet where he lacks is surely in narrative. His colourful episodes each emerge distinct and complete, but the connecting conceptual thread - the guide rope with which Boulez never loses contact - is often lost.

Royal Festival Hall, London, 13 June