Friday, 15 February 2008

Daniel Barenboim, Beethoven sonatas, 15 February 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.16 in G major, Op.31 no.1
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp major, Op.27 no.2
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.6 in F major, Op.10 no.2
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.31 in A flat major, Op.110

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

It has been interesting to note the response of the press since the previous concert I attended from this cycle. If there has been an unenthusiastic voice, I have missed it. Daniel Barenboim has even appeared on Newsnight to be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman: what a welcome exchange for the usual dissembling politicians! (The sight this evening of a disgraced former Conservative Cabinet minister, far too self-important to engage in the plebeian business of applause, ostentatiously departing from the hall the moment both halves of the recital had finished, did not edify.) Yet in these reviews, I think it proper to concentrate upon the music – as Barenboim has constantly bade us do – rather than to discuss those activities which, to any person of sanity, would unreservedly commend him for a Nobel Peace Prize. I happen to think that politics and music are more awkwardly connected than Barenboim would have us believe, but this is a debate for another occasion.

That the press reaction has been so uniform is interesting in itself, for I should wager that a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies from him would have been more controversial. This has little or nothing to do with a difference in approach from Barenboim, and more or less everything to do with an unimaginative, doctrinaire attitude from more ‘authentically’ inclined critics when it comes to orchestral music. There will doubtless somewhere have been some sectarian gut-and-metronome obsessive fulminating against the use of a modern piano and issuing fatwas concerning Werktreue and the Urtext. For once, however, no one else cares.

Barenboim truly had the measure of Op.31 no.1. An understandable temptation in this sonata would be to underline the almost neo-classical exaggerations in the work, what William Kinderman in his excellent programme notes referred to as ‘a hint of sophisticated mockery’. Barenboim showed, however, that this playing with expectations, for instance in the excessively operatic roulades of the Adagio grazioso, needs to be balanced by a strong sense of the tradition on which such exaggeration is based. This is emphatically not Stravinsky; it may, however, have something in common with the Mahler of, say, the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies. Structural command becomes all the more crucial, not in the sense of imposing a formal straitjacket upon the work, although its form was commendably projected, but through allowing thematic development to inform the recounting of all other aspects of the work’s progress, not least the performer’s finely judged tempo fluctuations. This should not be taken to imply that there was a lack of attention to detail: syncopations were spot on; dynamic contrasts were carefully though never pedantically drawn, and the filigree, almost Chopinesque decoration was spun like gossamer. The pianissimo chords at the end of the finale were breathtaking, but this was as much on account of their placing within the whole as for themselves, which is as it should be.

The C sharp minor sonata was just as much a revelation. We are clearly stuck with the epithet Moonlight, whose saving grace that it is so absurdly inappropriate that it does little harm. Liszt’s description, quoted in the programme, of the second movement as ‘a flower between two abysses’ is far more apposite, and certainly was to this reading. I have often heard performances in which each movement simply appears to present a different mood, but here there was a clear progression from the all-too-celebrated arpeggios of the first movement to their raging equivalent in the Presto agitato. The harmonic direction of the opening Adagio sostenuto was never in doubt, and the biting right-hand minor ninth dissonances (bb. 52, 54) told as so rarely they do. This was owed in equal part to that sense of direction and to the careful balance between legato tone for the upper part and the disturbing implacability below. The phrasing in the Allegretto was a joy to hear: a master-class in true Classical style, and a true ‘flower between two abysses’. (Sadly, all too many members of the audience reacted angrily to Barenboim following Beethoven’s marking attacca subito il seguente, retorting with a barrage of bronchial commentary.) The final movement was duly Presto and duly agitato, but never ran away with itself. Barenboim’s pedalling – not at all easy to get right in this movement – was here every bit as impressive as his fingerwork. Everything moved inexorably towards a truly tragic conclusion.

The performance of the F major sonata, Op.10 no.2, was perhaps not on quite so exalted a level. For one thing was what sounded suspiciously like a brief memory lapse, albeit well covered up, during the F minor second movement. Its cross-rhythm sforzandi were splendidly presented, however, as was its unassuming lyricism. Whilst it was always clear where the outer movements were heading, I sensed – or imagined – a slight impatience, as if Barenboim were understandably anxious to reach the more rarefied world of the final work to be performed. The phrasing and articulation of the final Presto was nevertheless deeply impressive, and there was never any doubt about Beethoven’s slightly gruff humour during this work.

The sublimity – and let us not be shy about this word, for Beethoven’s music practically defines it – of Op.110 was projected for all to hear: both public and confidential. Tovey wrote of the opening dynamic marking: ‘The word sanft (added to the MS. by another hand, probably at Beethoven’s dictation) is intended to translate con amabilità. It does not mean “soft” but, as nearly as may be, “gentle” in the most ethical sense of the word.’ This ethical sense was present throughout: a product of Beethoven’s and Barenboim’s humanity and a rare beauty of touch and sustenance of melodic line. A couple of unfortunate smudgings slightly took the edge off what Tovey aptly described as ‘externally the clearest and most euphonious [movement] in all the last sonatas’. The closing bars, however, were truly magical, the final crescendo and diminuendo perfectly judged so as to portray without exaggeration the swelling and subsidence towards and from the dissonant F flat, duly resolved. Rhythmic definition was the key to the Allegro molto, whose secret Barenboim therefore unlocked. The syncopations of the coda, which can sometimes be lost, were wonderfully present here. No one could have been in any doubt, as Barenboim spun the recitative of the following Adagio ma non troppo, that here was a great opera conductor. Yet he proved himself – as if proof were needed – equally a great pianist, through the surety and beauty of his melodic tone. The transition to the Klagender Gesang opened out the chord of A flat minor like the German Romantics’ proverbial blue flower against the backdrop of a wintry landscape. (If ever anyone doubted a modern instrument’s ability in this respect, this performance ought to have led him forever to hold his peace.) Yet the flower’s arioso lamentation ultimately gave us hope not desolation; there was no attempt to turn this into late Schubert. This was partly, of course, owed to the consolation of the fugue, at first unable to prevail, yet persistent enough to attempt to return – and to succeed. Its stealthy una corda return was breathtakingly handled, with both mystery and certainty. Thereafter, the sheer obstinacy of Beethoven’s counterpoint was powerfully presented. With Barenboim’s performance, it clearly registered that the secret of the fugal victory, to quote Kinderman, ‘arise not naturally through traditional fugal procedures, but only through an exertion of will that strains those processes to their limits’. We may question whether such a musico-ethical victory does not partake in the highest sense of the political, but that question, as I said earlier, may await another day.

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