Barenboim’s Beethoven: the most human of music gets the most human of performances in Berlin


GermanyGermany Beethoven: Daniel Barenboim (piano), Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 20.12.2019. (MB)

Daniel Barenboim © Pablo Castagnola

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.1 in F minor, Op.2 No.1; Piano Sonata No.2 in A major, Op.2 No.2; Piano Sonata No.3 in C major, Op.2 No.3; Piano Sonata No.4 in E-flat major, Op.7

Daniel Barenboim is no stranger to the Beethoven piano sonatas, nor indeed to performing all thirty-two in a series. (Why do we call them ‘cycles’? It makes no more sense to me than the non-laundry-usage ‘Ring cycle’, but anyway…) This is, however, the first time he will have performed them in chronological order. Alas, I shall be unable to attend all of the eight concerts, but shall report back as and when possible.

First up, naturally, were the three Opus 2 sonatas. To say that the F minor, No.1, takes its leave from Mozart’s C minor Sonata, KV 457 – ironically, Beethoven’s minor key par excellence – is only to state the obvious. Barenboim, however, not only brought out that kinship most strikingly in its opening figure; he also dramatised the first-movement exposition’s trajectory — arguably the movement’s, even sonata’s as a whole — in moving away from that starting-point, via late Haydn, to become more Beethovenian, as we understand the term. Romantic flexibility, founded on harmony, grew as we reached the point of return, upon which we fully appreciated how much had changed — and would continue to change. The closing bars, rightly, owed much once more to Mozart, without ever being reduced to origins.

Beethoven’s early slow movements offer a stern, very particular test for musicians. How to communicate that long line, that hearing in a single breath, while paying due attention to what may be ornate figuration but is certainly not ornament, and alongside that dialectic, to convey a simple sublimity and sublime simplicity quite different in nature, if not necessarily degree, from any music that has passed before? Perhaps needless to say, Barenboim passed that test triumphantly, his triumph lying in a reconciliation between private and public, starry skies and fathomless depths, we all know to be necessary, yet is rarer to hear in practice than we might hope. Beethoven, helps, of course, but one must show oneself ready to listen to and understand him; Barenboim most certainly did. The Innigkeit of the minuet seemed already to look forward to Schumann, alternating in another typical dialectic with proud obstinacy. A euphonious trio wished to be Mozart, so it seemed, yet also knew that it was already too late. Backward neoclassical glances to Mozart also characterised the finale, balanced, however, by an unnerving, well-nigh Chopinesque manic intensity such as was heard at the opening. To ask which won out would be to miss the point, and Barenboim knew it.

The first movement of the A major Sonata mixed Haydnesque wit with a gruff vigour and exultancy that could be no one else’s other than Beethoven’s. Also present were a particular style and idea of virtuosity that looked forward to the piano concertos, not least in the role played in motivic development and, beyond it, sonata form itself. Barenboim surveyed the extraordinary — truly extraordinary — emotional canvas of the slow movement with both a lifetime’s understanding and what might be thought, however erroneously, a young man’s urgent need to bear witness. He made no attempt to smooth over the shocks, nor to lessen crossed-hand yearning for resolution, all of which and more always played their part in Beethoven’s greater dramatic plan. A scampering scherzo nevertheless lacked nothing in the motivic engine of insistency. Its trio combined ardour, intimacy, and ultimate grandeur. Affectionate and boisterous, a puppy-like fourth movement proved every inch a finale in character and structural role.

The opening bars of the C major Sonata laid out with admirable clarity a conspectus, harmonic and motivic, for the movement to follow. Invited in, how could one fail to accept? The maturity of the development section proved especially striking: it is there in the score, of course, but it still needs to be brought out in performance. It might almost have been a symphony, but for the instrument (a considerable ‘but’, in theory and practice). The strange Adagio proved plainspoken in the best sense: honest, unarguable, disdaining anything remotely redolent of vanity. It eschewed the merely ‘popular’ in favour of the human. Controlled caprice, testing the limits of how far music might stray from the tonal centre, characterised the scherzo. The trio drew on hints already given in the scherzo — and less ran than sang with them. The finale sang too, of and almost from a paradise Mozart had known. It asked whether Beethoven, let alone the twenty-first century, might briefly know that paradise again and left tantalisingly open that possibility; until furious reaction came, that is, reaction that was necessarily still related to what had gone before. Wonder lay in liminal passages as much as in those extremes and in the magical thread with which Beethoven and his interpreter bound all together.

A first-movement exposition of immediacy, potentiality, grandeur, and — especially in the second group — incommensurable dignity announced that the Op.7 Sonata in E-flat would be of a different nature again. How far Beethoven and we had come already! The development did what it should, developing all those and more, deepening and yet becoming still more direct as required. Syncopations truly told, nowhere more so than in the second development of the recapitulation. Again, the slow movement’s breadth of canvas struck one immediately. Much was related to what we had heard in each of its three predecessors, yet with palpably greater mastery and, yes, sublimity. It went somewhere, so it seemed, that no one previously, not even Beethoven, had so much as dreamed of. The third movement was sung as a good-natured riddle that held within itself its own solution, so long as one listened. That in turn necessitated a trio reaction of passion as yet unspoken. The finale is a movement of surpassing loveliness; so it sounded here. Surpassing moral worth too; so Barenboim revealed here. Its leisurely progress was justly loved, yet never too much, bringing forth as it must a necessary, vehement, dialectical reaction. It sounded as the most human of music in the most human of performances, both immediate and mediated.

Mark Berry



  1. Daniel Barenboim is the best interpreter alive with regard to the Piano Sonatas Composed by Beethoven.

    My favourite Beethoven Piano Sonatas are the Moonlight, Les Adieux, and Pathétique Sonatas.

    Wilhelm Kempff’s recordings Of The Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas are also good to listen to.

    I strangely believe that Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas are good to listen to because of his tutor’s impression on him, namely Franz Joseph Haydn.

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