The Daniel Barenboim Phenomenon

ItalyItaly Schubert, Chopin, Liszt – Daniel Barenboim (piano): Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco Della Musica, Rome 21.11.2016. (JB)

Schubert – Sonata D537; Sonata D959

Chopin – Ballade No.1

Liszt Funérailles No.7; Mephisto Waltz No.1

Few performers arrive at a level where their delivery is so unspeakably extraordinary that in a word it is a phenomenon.  Such a pianist is Daniel Barenboim. There is always something in a phenomenon that cannot be shoehorned into words.  Words fail us.  So I must ask readers’ indulgence as I try to find some words for what I heard at Barenboim’s Santa Cecilia recital.

The first part of his programme was two Schubert sonatas, D537 and D959.  The morning of the recital, to prepare myself for the pleasures of the evening, I listened to some recordings of these masterpieces: Mitsuko Uchida and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (D537) and Grigory Sokolov (D959).  All these pianists are phenomenal, so any comparison starts with a level playing field, so to speak.

But phenomenal pianists are not phenomenal all the time.  The one exception to this is Sokolov, exceptional at every hearing.  I was delighted that on one occasion he had included Rameau in one programme, a composer I have never been able to relate to.  I was sure he would show me what this music was all about.  He didn’t.  But my colleagues in the Italian music press were ecstatic with his Rameau.  I must therefore conclude that this deficiency lies with me and not Sokolov.

Schubert’s A minor sonata D537 (1817) is in three movements: the first movement marked allegro and the (final) third movement allegro vivace are both in the home key of A minor, while sandwiched between them is the second movement allegretto quasi andantino in the shockingly unrelated key of E major.  How like Schubert to be shocking and gracious in the same breath.  Schubert likes to tease his listeners’ ears with tonal ambiguities.  Not here.  Tonalities are clearly stated and given with unambiguous grace. What structure!  Which other composer offers shock and grace in the same piece?

That is a map of the sonata.  In the driver’s seat is Daniel Barenboim.  Perhaps a bit too much in the driver’s seat.  He is going at it hell for leather, as though the devil is behind him, faster than Uchida and much faster than Michelangeli. Allegro ma non troppo says Schubert, but Barenboim disregards the ma non troppo.  The first movement is an alternation of forte chords and piano rippling melodies.  Uchida very neatly makes a dialogue out of these contrasts and is easily the “cleanest” of the three, but her neatness is spoiled by horribly ugly fortes, stabbing the key as though she hates these chords.  Barenboim has the same defect in addition to being rhythmically slack in places.  Michelangeli plays the sonata as a pastorale, with contrast but no exaggeration of dynamics; his gentle gradations of tone cast a poetic voice over the piece, especially in the second movement.  He is equaled here by Uchida.  But just there, Barenboim sounds as though he could be playing Here we go gathering nuts in May.  Sloppy, almost.   Nothing meditative, which the other two thrive on.

D959 is one of the three great sonatas Schubert wrote in the last year of his life, 1828, wriggled with pain and dying of syphilis.  We should be cautious in reading biography into a composer’s work but to my ear, these terrible sufferings do somehow find their way into these masterpieces.  Everyone says that Beethoven’s influence is much in evidence here.  They are right.  But there are more sounds that are uniquely Schubert: the tonality colourings and challenges, almost an infatuation with the Italian, French and German sixths -the chords which are foreign to the key but can either be delightfully welcomed into it as chromatic colouring or immediately take you to another key.  And sometimes at great distance from the home key.

The exposition of the opening A major Allegro immediately plunges into unrelated C major of the development, without so much as a by your leave.  That ice-cold shower effect is beautifully delivered by Sokolov but wallpapered over by Barenboim.  In the Andantino in the A minor related F# minor, the drama calms but not as deeply in Barenboim as Sokolov.  The scherzo of the third movement (allegro vivace) is Schubert’s let-up moment, genuinely scherzosoAnd here Barenboim delivers the joke even better than Sokolov, as light as a feather and with all the unexpected bumps exquisitely executed. In the rondo finale (allegretto) Schubert leads up to climaxes that are rests.  Those rests must be played as notes to make their shocking effect.  Sokolov does this.  Barenboim doesn’t, he wallpapers over them and once again he is in too much of a hurry to tell you what Schubert is saying.

In the second part of the concert the Barenboim phenomenon was distinctly on display.  He began with what many pianists consider the most demanding piece of music written for their instrument, Chopin’s First Ballade in G minor Op.23. (John Ogdon named the Fourth for the accolade of most difficult but former Editor in Chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, stood by the challenge of the First and gave himself a year to learn it with the hope he could get it up to public performance standard; he did, and wrote a book about his experience.)  Chopin himself regarded his Ballades as his most accomplished work.  So did Schumann and later, Brahms.  So, whoever enters the arena of the First Ballade knows they enter an immense challenge. Barenboim is more than up to this challenge. Chopin’s piece is the very soul of romanticism.  Barenboim so intermingles this soul with his own that it is (studiedly?) unclear which soul you are listening to.  The communication powers of Barenboim come into play here too.  Our souls in the audience came alive with his performance.  Rarely has that perfect Trinity of composer, performer, and listener worked so well: three in one indeed.  By the way, the Church did not invent the idea of the Trinity, so I can’t be said to be stealing it from them.

All three pieces in the second part were pianistic pyrotechnics.  Liszt’s Funérailles No.7 (1849) was said to have been written as a memorial for Chopin who died in October of that year, and indeed there are direct references to Chopin in the score.  But Liszt himself said he wrote it for three Hungarian Generals who died in the Austrian, Hungarian War.  There are distinct military references in the work, for instance in its heavy opening chords.  But the piece moves out of the war drama into pastures both sunnier and stronger.  And the Barenboim fingers tread this path with intense, rich feeling and skill.  All the climaxes are perfectly delivered without feeling  even minimally measured.

Before I report on Daniel Barenboim’s final piece, and out of fairness to this incomparable pianist, I have just listened to two other recordings of the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No.1, from Eugene Kissin and Boris Berezovsky, to clarify by comparison. Kissin’s spare use of the pedal gives the notes more clarity; some of his passages glitter more than the other two, but he also loses out on both the drama and romanticism and ends up sounding rather school boyish.  Berezovsky’s is a pure pyrotechnics display, insufferably percussive though like Kissin, with every note articulated, including a few wrong ones (which personally I consider the least of crimes).  Barenboim is right to bring the drama and romanticism to centrestage with what the other two would consider an overuse of pedal.  Right too to smudge some of the notes so that they don’t sound clearly.  That is part of the Waltz’s unique combination of drama and charm.  And Barenboim gives us both in bucketfulls.  His exaggerations and free rubatos call for no apology.  They are so profoundly musical and part of him that once again that Trinity of the souls of composer, pianist and audience were as one.

A standing ovation followed.  Try as we would, with almost no one of the two thousand plus audience having left their place, we called him back three prolonged times, pleading for an encore.  But he would not concede.  Could it be that he thought, You only like my pyrotechnics and I don’t, so sod you! 

In any case, I am professionally duty-bound to add a short note after my somewhat harsh verdict on his Schubert, to declare my wholehearted applause for Barenboim the man.  And as I’ve indicated, there is no difference between the musician and the man when he is firing on all cylinders.  He has citizenship of Argentina (where he was born), Israel (the home of his religion), Palestine (the home of one of his major missions) and Spain (the home and sponsors of his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded with Edward Said in 1999).  And I am sure that if he wanted a German passport (he now lives in Berlin) Frau Merkel would be honoured to add it to his collection.  He is the exemplary world citizen. He believes the world can only function in the interests of everybody if it comes together.  He is totally opposed to the foolishness of Brexit and has said so in a finely reasoned essay.

Jack Buckley

1 thought on “The Daniel Barenboim Phenomenon”

  1. Thanks Jack for reminding us all what a great musician and man Barenboim is. His Divan orchestra is an inspiration – what a pity he can’t be American President as well!!


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