South Bank International Piano Series – Daniel Barenboim (26 November)

Sonata in F minor Op.57 (Appassionata)
Three Petrarch Sonnets
Dante Sonata
Sonata in C, K330

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 26 November, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

In this age of pianist-turned-conductors, it is easy to see that some of them relish the flexibility of their new roles more than their old – whether from the paucity of the recitals they give (Ashkenazy, say) or because their conducting has simply become more engaged than their playing (Pletnev, say). Others, such as Kovacevich, retain a primary identity as pianists. Daniel Barenboim has long been prominent in both guises. In this recital he triumphantly showed that his conducting commitments do not prevent him from being one of the world’s major pianists.

The principal virtue of this recital was its sense of character and occasion. Barenboim is not known as a specialist in any one composer, though he has had a lifelong love of Beethoven; rather, in everything he played, he made us aware of how experience does not breed indifference, nor familiarity contempt. Instead, whether it was the pellucid delicacy of his Scarlatti encore, the forthright dignity of Mozart, or the jewelled beauty of Villa-Lobos (another encore), one remained curious as to his readings – the impression that it was precisely this experience and familiarity that allowed Barenboim to play with such a fine mixture of spontaneity and decisiveness. Whether in his internalised awareness of structure or in his attention to detail – especially in the left hand – there was little that disappointed.

The opening Mozart was substantial, almost grand; Barenboim admirably caught the essence of the slow movement with its integrally operatic style, although the last movement might have been wittier and more impish. Barenboim’s Beethoven remains classical and remarkably consistent, bringing out but never exaggerating the drama of so consciously heroic a sonata as the “Appassionata”. In both works, there was an absolutely intuitive awareness of pace, which made the slow-movement variations of the Beethoven especially sensitive and sweet-toned; at worst, there was occasional percussiveness to faster treble passages.

The challenge of Liszt is always what lies beyond the notes. Barenboim’s selection, especially the Petrarch Sonnets, reminded not only that virtuosity is at its most impressive when revealing the music, but also that Liszt built his textures as much to convey a particular soundworld as to show off a pianist’s abilities – Liszt exploring the connection between pianistic idiom and the wider picture of European Romantic nature and culture. The tranquil, lyrical Sonnets, the composer as mystic, not pyrotechnician, were followed by a Dante Sonata that was at times untidy yet always retained a sense of direction and form, something far from common in performances of large-scale Liszt.

I came to this recital not knowing whether to expect the routinely good or the excellently original. I am delighted to have heard something always refined and deeply understood and, at times, magical.

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