Thursday 7 February 2008

Daniel Barenboim, Beethoven sonatas, 6 February 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.5 in C minor, Op.10 no.1
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.11 in B flat major, Op.22
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor, Op.49 no.1
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.20 in G major, Op.49 no.2
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, Op.57, Appassionata

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

If only I had been able to attend all eight recitals in Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven sonata cycle. Still, three may well prove to be the least bad alternative: seven would simply be perverse; five or six would be tantalisingly close; four would be frustratingly half-way there; one or two would be nowhere enough. At least this is what I shall try to tell myself by way of consolation, for this was a marvellous concert.

To begin with, I was rather surprised to find the dynamic contrasts a little constrained: the last thing one would expect from Barenboim, one of the most ‘orchestral’ of pianists. However, I think this may have been at least in part a product of where I was seated: further back in the stalls than I have been since the Royal Festival Hall reopened. At any rate, my ears soon more or less adjusted, although Barenboim did seem, consciously or no, to be holding something in reserve at least during the first movement of Op.10 no.1. There were also a few minor smudges: nothing to worry about, but enough to show that even great musicians sometimes need to warm up. With the Adagio molto, any reservations evaporated, never to return. The true profundity of Beethoven’s slow movements, even – indeed in some senses, especially – in his earlier sonatas, is one of the most difficult things for a pianist to express and appears to come only with experience. This is something Barenboim certainly possesses, and it shows: not only experience of Beethoven piano sonatas, but of vast swathes of the piano, chamber, orchestral, and operatic repertoire. Only connect – and he does, laying claim to the mantle of the great German-European humanistic tradition. The noble simplicity of the opening, which lies as much in the weighting of the chords as in the sustaining of line, was perfectly judged, and the progress of the sustained melodic line was vocally rapt, though never at the expense of lightness of touch in filigree decoration. In the final A flat chords, the pianissimo whispered confidence was at such a dynamic and emotional level that time could have stood still. Unfortunately, that must have been too much for some of the audience, since a barrage of coughing disturbed Barenboim’s attack of the third movement, although it failed to disrupt his urgency. For once, Prestissimo did not seem an exaggerated marking: the music verily hurtled by, yet with no shortness of change for contrapuntal clarity and breadth of tone where required (e.g., bb. 80-84). The humour of the ‘wrong’ chord just before the end registered and could be savoured just long enough before the properly quiet conclusion.

For reasons that have always eluded me, Op.22 has often been something of a Cinderella amongst the Beethoven sonatas. Barenboim certainly made no apology for it and it requires none. Sir Donald Tovey rightly pointed out that the third bar, with its necessary freedom of the right forearm, is more difficult technically than anything else in the sonata, but one would never have known. The single-line echo of this in the left hand (b. 11-12) was quite dazzling. I mention this, since one sometimes hears a great deal of nonsense about Barenboim the pianist (supposedly past his best, since he now ‘conducts too much’), just as much as about Barenboim the conductor (supposedly never quite as good as he is a pianist). True, one does not consider him primarily as a great technician, but that is because he is a great musician, his technique always at the service of the music. One would not catch him playing crowd-pleasing virtuoso fripperies, but nor would one Maurizio Pollini, and I do not think anyone has ever doubted his virtuosity. Small minds cannot conceive that one man could exhibit greatness in all of these respects – and more; so much the worse for them. The syncopated chords of the second group during the recapitulation were not only rhythmically precise but presented with great fullness and beauty of tone, and the abrupt dynamic contrasts of the coda duly told. I do not know why, but it always seems to take me a little time to accustom myself to the compound triple time of the slow movement. The understated implacability of those eighteen repeated E flat major chords in the left hand assisted greatly, as did the way Barenboim began to spin his melodic charm above. The first statement of the songful melody sounded a little neutral, but that is really as it should be, for the music needs time to breath and to bloom. Beethoven’s two final movements are amongst his loveliest creations, which is how they sounded here. There was a wonderfully poised swing to the minuet, whilst the allegretto of the Rondo was again perfectly judged. This beautiful movement, which in mood and harmony has a great deal in common with the ‘Spring’ Sonata for violin and piano, Op.24, can rarely have flowed so effortlessly. Each statement of the rondo theme sounded like the presentation of a new tale in an intimately connected anthology, with Beethoven – or should that be Barenboim – playing the role of the master story-teller. Every time, it was the same but different, a subtle product of context and progression. Like the Arabian Nights, one wished each tale would never end.

There should be no condescension toward the two so-called ‘sonatinas’ amongst the canonical thirty-two, for it takes a great musician to perform them meaningfully, just as it does in any of the other thirty sonatas. Barenboim presented both Op.49 works with a clarity of purpose that would have been a master-class to any young – or not-so-young – pianists embarking upon their exploration of Beethoven. The Mozartian textures and passage-work of the G minor sonata were never mere finger-exercises; to play them with perfect accuracy was but the prelude to making music. Quite rightly, the expressive contrasts were not exaggerated, but nor were they under-played. Likewise for Op.49 no.2, whose minuet, with its origins in that of the Septet, Op.20, once again had a wondrously joyous swing to it. Beethoven is not merely profound; he is also great fun.

But the best was yet to come: a truly great performance of the Appassionata. From the chillingly mysterious F minor octave arpeggios of the opening, it was clear that this would be an enthralling journey. I use the word ‘journey’ intentionally, not, I hope, in thrall to the banal language and preconceptions of modern reality television, but since the Beethovenian explorations of which Beethoven was our guide at times put me, rather to my surprise, in mind of Schubert, not least his Winterreise. This was a journey both physically scenic and metaphysically draining, which never strayed into the realms of false emoting, nor of ham virtuosity. Schubert sometimes – though not nearly so often as one might expect – sounds like Beethoven, but the converse is rarely the case, and I should not wish to exaggerate in this instance; nevertheless, Barenboim’s tragic sense, whilst not without its vehemence, also possessed a harrowing fatal resignation. The purely pianistic element was jawdropping; no one hearing the crossed hand arpeggios of the first movement or the tumultuous Presto conclusion to the third could ever doubt Barenboim’s technique. Yet the tone was so full of quasi-orchestral colour – ’cello-like richness on the sculpted bass line of the second movement’s theme, dashing high flutes and piccolos in the fury of the finale – that rarely if ever did one think of this as ‘pianism’. The programme notes quoted Igor Markevitch telling the young Barenboim’s father that his son played the piano orchestrally. There is a great deal of truth in this and, whatever his envious detractors might say, Barenboim was clearly born to conduct. Yet at the same time, this concerns at least as much his conception of pianism for purely musical ends as his destiny to lead an orchestra. Just as we rarely think of Beethoven as a great orchestrator, since his musical thought is so inextricably tied to its orchestration, so we understandably tend to forget the instrument as such when Barenboim plays.

After the tumult, which occasionally verged upon existential despair, of the first movement, the emotional heart of the sonata came with the second movement’s theme and variations. A vision of hope, however, fleeting, was set before us. If the slow movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata is, in the unforgettable words of J.W.N. Sullivan, like ‘the icy heart of some remote mountain lake’, then this was rightly different. It was more akin to having reached the quickening waters lake in the foothills, the surface ripples bathed in sunlight, yet barely concealing something more troubled in the depths. But of course, as is so often the case with middle-period Beethoven, the slow movement’s function is also to serve as a prelude to the finale. Barenboim’s rage was never unduly wild, but not did it pull any emotional punches. Those fatal rhythms tolled – and told, allied as they were to a profound understand of the movement’s harmonic direction. Beethoven’s vehemence was bluff and trenchant, yet also sang to us, reminding us through – in every sense of the word – the piano cascades of the narrative thread by which work and performance were conceived. It is a while since I have heard such a thrilling conclusion to any piano work, all the more thrilling on account of our wayfarer-performer’s refusal to countenance any but the most arduous path. The standing ovation could hardly have been more richly deserved.