Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A God among Mortals: Feats of Expression and Memory from a Showman and Living Phenomenon

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A God among Mortals: Feats of Expression and Memory from a Showman and Living Phenomenon

Article excerpt

Daniel Barenboim: Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle

Royal Festival Hall, London SE1

Ten years ago, Daniel Barenboim did the Beethoven "double", playing the five piano concertos and conducting the nine symphonies in six days. Now he has memorised the 32 piano sonatas, about 16 hours of music, and is playing them, not in order, but over eight concerts in 21 days in front of 2,000 people each night at the Royal Festival Hall.

Why does he put himself through such an ordeal? He surely doesn't need the money. At 65 he is still music director of the Berlin Staatskapelle and general music director of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. He has also only just retired as chief conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he runs the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which comprises Arab and Israeli musicians. It was in this capacity that he accepted a medal from the Royal Philharmonic Society after the opening concert, in a slightly embarrassing ceremony for which the audience had to be called back, as it had already stopped clapping and started to disperse.

He had just played Sonata No 29 in B-flat major, "Hammerklavier", and the huge adagio sostenuto had burned with less than the fiercest intensity. The finale's fugue had assumed a formal, academic tone and only the students in the penumbra of his limelight on the stage had stayed with every note.

The work had begun with a bristling, stately, come-all fanfare after the interval, and the ensuing allegro with its spiky, morose scherzo had promised a passionate contrast to the scintillating first half of the concert. Then he had played two earlier, less weighty works including No 18 in E-flat major, "La Chasse", discovering in its second movement a tune of such joyful and satisfying form over a lightly energetic bass that one had fairly skipped over the carpet to press drinks.


Before that, he had set out with No 1 in F minor, sharing the composer's excitement about the life journey he was embarking on in the bounding, light-hearted, upward trajectory of the main theme. The slow movement contained the core, and he stilled the crowd with the glowing chords, pausing on the dissonance of the cadence for an outrageously long time. Some wondered at the inter-movement coughing, but it was only the expulsion of breath from a hall that had been holding it in.

So it was a shame that the "Hammerklavier" did not work; but that is a risk when you play the sonatas out of sequence. Barenboim himself says the ideal is a chronological rendition mirroring the composer's life, each work an intimate diary entry, suffering, wrestling, musing and rejoicing when he does. …

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