Magazine article Gramophone

A Life in Music: Two Retrospectives of Barenboim as Both Pianist and Conductor

Magazine article Gramophone

A Life in Music: Two Retrospectives of Barenboim as Both Pianist and Conductor

Article excerpt

Selling records in London, 20 years ago and more, it was impossible to ignore the brand loyalty among customers based on their perceptions of a particular label's 'sound'. All the major companies had their adherents, who would look neither right nor left before pulling the latest EMI or Philips disc from the New Releases shelf. One or two hardened collectors would reject out of hand--or serially return--any DG album for what they claimed was overly 'analytical' sound: a description carrying with it implications of Audi's Vorsprung durch Technik and, one suspected, older, more hard-wired historic prejudices.

At any rate the atomisation of the music industry since then has rendered any such criticism obsolete. Many recordings are buy-ins from all manner of sources; nearly all recording engineers are now freelance, and if you back them into a corner one evening they can be found to lament the passing of those days when labels, just like orchestras, really did have a sound all their own.

Another of those labels was undoubtedly CBS, now only a name in time like two of the companies quoted above, swallowed up by international conglomerates. John McClure had produced hundreds of Bruno Walter, Stravinsky and Bernstein recordings in New York, and he was in the control-room in January 1971 for what is now the third disc of Daniel Barenboim--A Retrospective: The Complete Sony Recordings.

McClure produced a big, warm, slightly fuzzy soundstage in the New York Philharmonic's home at Lincoln Center. Bernstein may have left the building in 1969, entrusting the orchestra to the temporary care of George Szell, but this was still recognisably his orchestra. The 28-year-old Barenboim was content to lead rather than pull them about, though he has his own ideas about the halting progress of the Andantino of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony which he would later finesse while impeding its flow.

The highlight of the box is an Elgar collection recorded in 1972-76 at Abbey Road studios with the London Philharmonic and beginning with the toughest nut of all, the Second Symphony. Issued separately, this would make a very attractive seven-CD set. Much has been made of Barenboim's return to Elgar in recent years. In the trenchant sweep of these earlier accounts I hear the positive influence of Barbirolli, before an obsession with underlining every chromatic Wagnerian harmony took over; a palpable delight in the unsettling wit of Falstaff, a warm embrace of the ceremonial and extrovert Elgar (Cockaigne; Pomp and Circumstance; even The Crown of India suite) and more precious still, the kind of tender care lavished on the composer's lighter music (Carissima; Sospiri; the late Romance for bassoon and strings) which Barenboim the pianist was bringing at the time to Mozart sonatas for EMI.

Here, too, is the best record of Barenboim's long artistic partnership with Pinchas Zukerman: tying, between them, the Elgar Concerto to the European mainstream where it belongs: freespirited, unselfconscious music-making of the unrepeatable kind captured by Christopher Nupen in his film of The Trout Quintet. Four discs of Mozart concertos have not worn their years nearly so well; covered in syrup and pickled by an unpleasantly confined recording in CBS's 'London studios' (the booklet is no more forthcoming).

Back in New York, a Beethoven Violin Concerto with Isaac Stern from May 1975 is no less acoustically compromised, swimming and then drowning in the Hammerstein Ballroom of the Manhattan Center. History had come neatly full circle, however, when Barenboim returned to Kingsway Hall in March and April that year to accompany the 88-year-old Arthur Rubinstein in the Beethoven piano concertos, seven years after recording them with Klemperer on the podium. Rubinstein sounds his years only in some unhurried tempi and a touch that's heavier physically than musically, and Barenboim's husbanding of the LPO is accordingly more attentive. …

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