When you are in the presence of the world’s greatest living musician, a term I use with caution, it is tempting to suspend critical faculties and assume everything is perfect. But perfection is not something that interests Daniel Barenboim, because if this rendition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 and this Bruckner Seventh Symphony – the start of a three-concert series – were perfect, they wouldn’t be human, and it’s the sheer humanity of Barenboim’s performances, their failings as well as their bravura, that defines everything he does. He allows a degree of risk – call it chance or improvisation – that comes from supreme self-confidence. It involves occasional lapses of ensemble and blotchy articulation, but by the same token generates life in every phrase and paragraph, so that the music retains its capacity to surprise and is never predictable.
His Mozart, directed from the keyboard (as it was more than 40 years ago when he regularly worked with the English Chamber Orchestra), was in many ways an old-fashioned performance with old-fashioned virtues. It had an easy pace, an introspective mood, drawing a capacity audience into the silence of sound at the heart of the slow movement and painting each of the finale’s variations like a character of its own in a prodigiously gifted family. I didn’t like the shallow tone of Barenboim’s own piano, which was at odds with the central European timbre of his orchestra. The Staatskapelle ennobled the Festival Hall acoustic and played with the decorum of a court orchestra, making chamber music with its master.
Those qualities created a lively but not wholly satisfactory Bruckner experience. There was occasional untidiness in the opening movement to remind us that this orchestra has a busy “other” life in the opera pit, and the Adagio did not transform its manifold building blocks into a shape of ecstatic intensity, as the most transcendent performances do. The chief positive on this occasion was the sense of lyrical flow, and the amount of space Barenboim created for the sound to resonate – a sound exemplified by the brass choirs in the scherzo and finale, deep, dark and hymnal.