Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: 16 April, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
As I write this, the London Marathon is taking place. In the afternoon, a stone’s throw away from the course, Daniel Barenboim will repeat his playing of Brahms’s two piano concertos – a feat of stamina, endurance and athleticism, two works rendered twice that occupy more time than the fastest runners will take to complete the race.
It is debatable whether hearing Brahms’s piano concertos back-to-back is as illuminating as doing so separately. Both are symphonic and each lasts longer than any one of Brahms’s four symphonies. They are among his most demanding works for the listener. It is certainly a rare combination – the two sets of programme notes, containing as they did a good deal of straight repetition, were clearly meant to stand on their own. Perhaps the experience best illustrates the consistency of Brahms’s conceptions in the concerto over the twenty-five years separating these works.
For both concertos, Barenboim’s vision was grand, stately, a judicious balance between lyrical intimacy and Brucknerian scale. His greatest strengths lay within that lyricism: beauty of tone, differentiation of voices, and duetting with orchestral instruments. A passage just before the coda of No.1’s first movement, and the final entry of the solo cello in the slow movement of No. 2, were especially memorable. The many passages of solo meditation within the two concertos were compelling.
Antonio Pappano and the LSO were in general sensitive partners – there were excellent moments, such as the second theme in the finale of No.1, where the piano lifted organically out of the orchestral texture. There were, however, also careless flaws, most of all at the last orchestral entry in the slow movement, which completely evaporated the carefully constructed mood of serenity.
Barenboim’s overall performance had two main faults. Whenever the piano part was loud, or its texture dense with chords, the tone became hard-edged and there was an excessive number of wrong notes. The renditions therefore were frequently disjointed, all the more since the broad interpretation meant that the music frequently teetered on the brink of being static.
All live playing has wrong notes, and recordings of concerts of No.1 by unimpeachable musicians such as Schnabel and Curzon can uncover fistfuls. However, in this case, the blemishes were consistently intrusive – notably at the double octaves in the first movement of No.1, and each appearance of the first theme in the finale. Surely Barenboim himself must have been aware of the problem? After the interval, it appeared that he might be flagging – the scherzo of No.2 emerged as ragged, with a lapse near the end, while the finale was jerky, sometimes ugly, its playful mood very intermittent.
I cannot think of any musician with less to prove than Barenboim. He is celebrated as a soloist and accompanist and as an orchestral and opera conductor. His list of recordings, even of record labels on which he is represented, is unparalleled, and the Western world admires his political campaigning, through music, for peace in the Middle East. A large and appreciative audience cheered Barenboim to the echo. But despite the youthfulness he displayed, he was surely more assured in this repertoire in the past. There is, after all, a fundamental difference between the aims of Art and of Sport. That Barenboim is physically able to survive such a challenge – which would be difficult enough for someone a generation, even two, younger – may not be sufficient justification for attempting it.