There is something terribly compelling about an aura of assurance, and Daniel Barenboim, who has more to be assured about than most, exudes this aura. At the helm of L'Orchestre de Paris at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall yesterday, he navigated the broad landscape of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony with an extraordinarily sure sense of perspective and direction. As the piano soloist in the opening Ravel G Major Concerto, he was as commanding in the seamless, gently moving second movement as he was in the flashy splashes of the first and third, and throughout he projected calm control and enormous concentration.
The orchestra, a finely balanced ensemble, responded marvelously to his direction. Certainly a tour repertoire gets a lot more rehearsing than does the music of the regular season, and certainly an orchestra takes its best out on the road, but even allowing for this, L'Orchestre de Paris put on an impressive show.
The Ravel is an orchestral showpiece in an acrobatic sort of way. It is a three-ring circus with attention constantly shifting from solo virtuosity to outbursts from the winds to string lyricism and back again. Coordination is a challenge, and when the soloist is also the conductor the challenge is even greater. That the orchestra met this challenge with such alacrity and success speaks to its preparation but also to its quality. Furthermore, one expects a French orchestra to field excellent woodwinds, but for such a group to field equally excellent brasses is an extra bonus and one that contributed to the Ravel's excitement. The bravos that followed the performance were deserved.
It is hard to imagine a more complete contrast to the Ravel than the Bruckner. As German as the Ravel is French, it develops its philosophical themes exhaustively, dwelling on death and redemption, on mystery and eternity, all the things that the Wagnerians and their 19th-century compatriots loved to chew over. Bruckner was expansive (some might even say self-indulgent) in his treatment of these ideas, as befitted their solemnity, and a performance of this music is an exercise in endurance, patience and vision.
Barenboim paced the music exquisitely, maintaining a sense of movement and direction while retaining a sense of repose and reflection. He let climaxes accumulate with unhurried passion and in their own time.
This was a performance that paid more attention to the development of ideas than to the overindulgence of emotion, and, in that sense, was as restrained and as effective as an hour and a half of high romanticism can be.