Daniel Barenboim – Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle (8)

Piano Sonata in E, Op.14/1
Piano Sonata in E flat, Op.7
Piano Sonata in F, Op.54
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.111

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 17 February, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Daniel BarenboimThe last concert in Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle typically mixed ‘early’-, ‘middle’- and ‘late’-period works. It is a policy that Barenboim admits is a compromise, aimed at those who do not choose to experience the complete canon, so that each recital becomes a self-contained entity as well as being part of a greater whole. To play them in order would “really (have) given the journey its full meaning” (and that is how Maurizio Pollini presented them in his marathon multi-city attack on this Beethovenian summit some years ago). Still, at least on January 28 Barenboim started with Genesis (Opus 2/Number 1) and here ended with Opus 111.

So many amateur pianists must be familiar with Opus 14/Number 1 – it sat (and possibly still does) on exam lists for years. The two Opus 14 sonatas are seen as less important than most of the rest. Barenboim was clearly acting as council for the defence, relaxing hugely for the first movement’s second subject and clarifying the four-voiced texture with exemplary clarity; the second movement (an Allegretto) was much more serious than usual. Barenboim even found a kind of proto-virtuosity in the finale.

The great Opus 7 Sonata was given an impassioned account (complete with much foot-stamping from Barenboim!). There were some reminders of the perilous nature of Beethoven’s virtuosity here as Barenboim’s fingers stumbled occasionally, but what lingers on is the expressive and dynamic range Barenboim employed. Fortes and fortissimos were never harsh. Telling silences in the Largo con gran espressione brought the sonata out of its ‘first’-period pigeon-holing. Only the finale found Barenboim exhibiting a tendency to linger unduly, presumably in a bid to emphasise the stormy C minor section.

The second half mirrored the programming concept of the first beautifully, with the slight, two-movement Opus 54 in huge contrast to the almighty also two-movement Opus 111. If the F major begun as rather Schubertian, it was because Barenboim’ emphasised the contrast with the staccato octaves. Never one to eschew risks, Barenboim attempted an egg-shell pp for the opening of the finale – and nearly succeeded (some notes did not speak). There seemed to be several attempts to convert this into a ‘late’-period work, most obviously in an obsessive edge to repeated chords. This approach worked well in context, but as an idea per se I remain unconvinced.

Finally, Opus 111. One criticism I have had of Barenboim is a lack of true tonal depth to his playing, something which sprang to mind as he launched into the opening. Occasional point-making was balanced by a superb sense of the ominous in the lead-in to the Allegro and in the importance given to silences. It was in the closing ‘Arietta’ that Barenboim’s playing approached the great. Sitting absolutely immobile while delivering the theme, Barenboim projected a true sense of the inevitable. The impression of the music’s disintegration he achieved in the closing pages was truly memorable. On a technical note, Barenboim’s trills have always been exemplary, and in ‘late’ Beethoven trills take on a whole, buzzing, life of their own. Shorn of the decorative, they generate energy – especially when delivered like this. Barenboim remains a force to be reckoned with.

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