An earthquake in C major: Daniel Barenboim and the Berliners

Alisa Weilerstein
The Guardian

The subtlety and insight of Daniel Barenboim's May Day concert with the Berlin Philharmonic in Oxford defied criticism

Well, I hope you heard it. Daniel Barenboim's concert with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Sheldonian in Oxford was one of those concerts that defied criticism (but read Andrew Clements on it here!). I was jammy enough to to be able to get there in the flesh (and so, somewhat surreally, was an impeccably coiffed Kevin Keegan), and amid Oxford's May Day madness, the Berlin Phil players turned Brahms's First Symphony into a visionary, life-enhancing sonic spectacular.

Encountering this orchestra in the Sheldonian's intimate acoustic and atmosphere – it only seats 800 people – was a unique privilege. The first oboist, Jonathan Kelly, told me afterwards that he felt as if the audience were also part of the orchestra thanks to the auditorium's almost-round shape and the fact that the orchestra performed on the floor of the theatre rather than on a raised platform. For most of the concert, I was reduced to a giggling, slack-jawed wreck, hardly able to believe the power and intensity of what I was hearing at such close proximity. Alisa Weilerstein gave the most technically complete and emotionally devastating performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto that I have ever heard live, with an orchestral accompaniment she can only have only thought possible in her wildest dreams, with the subtlety, sensuality, and insight of Barenboim's conducting.

The sonic phenomenon of the Berlin players being allowed to give their all by Barenboim, especially in the first and last movements of the Brahms symphony, is something that imprints itself on your soul. It's something that's impossible to put into words; nonetheless, with Pseud's Corner breathing down my neck, I'll have a go.

The final chord of the Brahms is a case in point. On the page, this could hardly be a more familiar or a more simple musical idea – a fortissimo C major chord that the whole orchestra holds for a semibreve, the sort of thing you've heard hundreds, thousands, of times. But never like this. This was a gigantic upswelling of musical affirmation that seemed more like a force of nature than the conclusion to a mere symphony: an earthquake in C major. It was a sound that began somewhere in the bowels of creation and exploded up to the heights of the cosmos – or more prosaically, it started with the Berliner's incomparable double-basses and took in everything and everyone up to Emmanuel Pahud's flute part.

And yet it wasn't just the sound, it was the way that this climactic moment was part of the gigantic wave of the whole performance that was so moving. That was true in every bar of this performance, from the ferocious storm at the heart of the first movement, to Jonathan Kelly's astonishingly free, almost improvised solo in the slow movement ("I always have the image of a tight rosebud slowly unfurling in that solo," he told me – a wonderful metaphor for how it sounded). And here's the defying criticism part: Barenboim's speeds, especially in the first couple of movements, were slow and conventional, and there was nothing in its broad outlines that you wouldn't expect from a resolutely traditional view of Brahms's piece. But Brahms's First Symphony has never been more intoxicatingly transcendent than it was in this performance. And here it is, on Medici TV. The concert should be out on DVD soon too, and the best guess for the BBC broadcast is September. However and whenever you experience the programme – enjoy.