Sunday 17 February 2008

Daniel Barenboim, Beethoven sonatas, 17 February 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.9 in E major, Op.14 no.1
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.4 in E flat major, Op.7
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, Op.54
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, Op.111

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

What a wonderful and unexpected programme for Daniel Barenboim to select to complete his Beethoven cycle! To include two ‘early’ sonatas underlined what should long have been clear from these performances, namely that these works should in no sense be seen as preparatory to middle- and late-period Beethoven. They are stunningly original works, with roots in Mozart and Haydn – and what is wrong with that?! – but which could have been written by one man alone. There may actually be a case for accounting the young Beethoven as one of the most underrated of great composers. The two-movement Op.54 sonata is a relative rarity, which again can only have benefited from its placing in this final recital. And then, it would surely have been folly to have ended with any work other than Op.111, but more on that below.

The E major sonata, Op.14 no.1, received a splendid performance. Such judgement as to how one might shape staccato or semi-staccato articulation within phrases (e.g., first movement: bb.23-4, 50-54) is rarer than one might think. Rhythms were buoyantly sprung and the balance between rhythmic and harmonic momentum was judged to mutual benefit. The clarity of part-writing was notable, especially during the second movement, although never at the expense of expressing the music’s vertical dimension, especially its beautiful chordal writing. I especially liked the suggestions of how the music would lend itself to string-quartet writing – Beethoven subsequently arranged it, up a semitone in F major (Hess 34) – without any misguided attempt to imitate or to prefigure. The interplay between parts was attended to, but so was the sheer pianistic pleasure of the semiquaver figuration in the first and third movements. Sforzandi were not underplayed, but were relatively gentle, as befits the character of the piece. In the final movement, I entertained a suspicion that the syncopation of the rondo theme’s final statement was anticipated in bars 82-3, but then wondered whether my ears had been playing tricks upon me. Whatever the truth of the matter, it worked rather well.

A grander canvas is prepared for the sonata in E flat, Op.7. Indeed, the drive with which Barenboim opened the Allegro molto e con brio almost looked forward to the Eroica symphony. The perfect balance between harmonic and contrapuntal concerns could all so easily be overlooked, but without it work and performance would have seemed a far lesser achievement, and would also almost certainly have seemed longer in duration. Syncopated dissonances sounded fun as well as harsh, which is at it should be, for there is a great sparkle to this movement, or at least there is when it is well performed. The Largo is again written on a grand scale, and presents the performer with a profound – in every sense – challenge in terms of its numerous silences. Needless to say, Barenboim, an experienced conductor of Bruckner, had their measure. The rests punctuated but also belonged to the melodic line. Whatever Beethoven’s music may be, it is not pointillistic. Barenboim’s skill at presenting Beethoven’s part-writing was once again to the fore in the third movement; this enabled the harmonic surprises to stand out without sounded forced. The arpeggiated Minore trio possessed an almost Schubertian beauty: not just or even primarily a matter of touch, but also of understanding its harmonic progression. And rarely if ever have I heard the Rondo sound more magical. Barenboim’s basic tempo seemed spot on, as if it were the only correct solution, which is how a ‘right’ tempo will sound, even if there are in reality several ‘correct’ choices one might make. The texture of the rondo theme sounded like ‘filled-in’ Mozart, delicate yet also rich in harmonic possibilities. Although the tempo would subtly shift for different episodes, there was always a sense of being welcomed home for the return of the rondo theme: both the same, and yet transformed by its new context. The pianissimo conclusion could not have sounded more beautiful, nor more apt. Barenboim’s performance was utterly at one with Beethoven’s music: a Romantic farewell to the eighteenth century. The Rondo was certainly grazioso, but this was a fond grace such as could only result from the dusk at which the owl of Minerva spreads its wings.

By the time we reach the minuet-style opening of the first movement of Op.54, the owl has flown some distance. For this is definitely a recollection of the eighteenth-century minuet: fond, but standing at a distance that permits humour without condescension. Barenboim once again presented the gracefulness required without sounding precious. He also presented the somewhat alarming double-octave triplet contrasts with a surety and vigour that yet managed to console, for we knew that our guide would see us safely to the other side. The concluding integration of the two themes, aptly characterised in William Kinderman’s programme notes as feminine and masculine, was achieved so as to make the combination more than the sum of its parts. There was no loss of character, but there was also something surprising, something new, and a proper sense of necessity for the following Allegretto to resolve their differences. Here, as so often in Beethoven, the dialectic between rhythmic and harmonic momentum is the key to understanding and to performing. Barenboim both understood and performed. He once again proved a trustworthy guide to the movement’s tonal plan and its spinning perpetual motion. The Più Allegro coda duly thrilled without undue haste, and its sforzandi bit, though never gratuitously so. There was a true sense of arrival as the music reached its conclusion, which could only have arisen from a profound understanding of where it had been heading all along.

The last time I had heard the Op.111 sonata had been in January, in a recital given by Stephen Hough at the Wigmore Hall. That had been a creditable performance, with a number of positive attributes, but now, faced with an indisputably great performance, I realised just how insufficient ‘creditable’ is in this music. (More suitable programming helps too.) As the inevitable culmination to the cycle of thirty-two sonatas, this was always going to be something special, both for performer and audience (even for those of us who had not been fortunate enough to attend all eight concerts). I was nevertheless quite unprepared for what was to come. This performance was symphonic and personal, orchestral and instrumental, summing up and looking forward. Let there once again be no doubt that Barenboim’s piano technique is more than adequate to face any of the challenges Beethoven hurls his way, even in what is probably, with the exception of the Hammerklavier sonata, the most technically difficult of the late sonatas. Yet whilst Barenboim has command over his instrument, this is not the command that is generally called ‘pianistic’ in terms of drawing attention – intentionally or no – to pianistic matters. Beethoven’s music is presented first as music, second as music written for and performed upon the piano. At the same time, the hushed tones of the Arietta’s leggieramente passages were as beautifully conceived in purely pianistic terms as one could imagine; they were never, however, merely ends in themselves.

The first movement, with its Maestoso opening, diminished sevenths crucial, leading into the Allegro con brio ed appassionato, inevitably recalls the Pathétique sonata, but it is equally clear that something more is at stake. Barenboim’s vehemence was not only audible, but clearly visible. He did not try to conceal the enormous physical effort Beethoven requires, which perhaps bonded performer and audience still more closely. The fugato was clearly and powerfully projected. This counterpoint is not neat, and Barenboim did not present it as such; it is, rather, superhuman, which is how it sounded. Inner parts were not only heard but sang, whilst the composer’s C minor daemon drove onwards, the counterpoint working – and worked out – as much through blood and sweat as through intellectual rigour. (Note ‘as much’: I have no desire to elevate the ‘emotional’ over the ‘intellectual’, an irredeemably false distinction. However, I do wish to deny any notion of the hermetic to late Beethoven.) The subdominant colouring of the coda was wonderfully tender, leading with inexorable sadness to the non-triumphant C major of the final bars, and thus preparing the way for the Arietta. ‘Sublime’ may be a word over-used, but is entirely apt for both score and performance. Beethoven’s marking Adagio molto semplice e cantabile informed and infused the spirit of Barenboim’s reading. One was left in no doubt that the harmony, which is often very simple indeed, could not be other than it was, that Beethoven could now speak, or sing, with such noble, powerful simplicity, that we stood on the verge of something noumenal, both ineffably human and yet unutterably divine. The rhythms of the extraordinary ‘boogie-woogie’ variation were precise without any loss of warmth, never losing sight of the humanism that pervades this movement even at its most celestial. And ‘celestial’ is certainly the word to characterise the closing pages, with their awe-inspiring trills, insistent yet as far from hectoring as could be conceived. The swelling counterpoint above and beneath sounded perfectly in harmony – in every sense – with the magic of the arpeggiated accompaniment. No wonder that, for once, the conclusion met with true silence, followed by the inevitable rapturous standing ovation.