It was 60 years to the day since Daniel Barenboim’s debut at the Royal Festival Hall. The hall had been opened just five years earlier. Barenboim was 13 years old. It would be an exaggeration to say the relationship has been unbroken (Barenboim became an infrequent visitor in the 1980s and ’90s), but recent years have seen his return with some major projects — the complete Beethoven and Schubert piano sonatas, Beethoven and Brahms symphony cycles, and more.
This anniversary concert was a one-off. There were speeches. There were reminiscences of friends and colleagues together with an unplanned encore (“Traumes Wirren” from Schumann’s Fantasiestücke). And there was much Brahms.
The concert was the last in the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela’s visit to London and Barenboim joined the orchestra and its musical director, Gustavo Dudamel, for the two heavyweight Brahms piano concertos in one evening — nothing more, nothing less. (His support for the Venezuelan “system” of creating orchestras for deprived youngsters was underlined in his after-concert speech.)
As a pianist, the 73-year-old Barenboim exudes a magisterial air. His playing is grand and spacious and rich in tone. He tends to splash through technical challenges, is generous with the sustaining pedal to cover any sins, and occasionally gazes into the audience as if to say, “If you don’t like it, too bad.” The depth of feeling is palpable. The sense of music being created afresh with every note would leave more diligent younger pianists standing.
For all that, these performances were not ideal. Barenboim used to play the D Minor Concerto, No. 1, as if in an Olympian fury. Now the drive has gone out of it and the concerto seemed to wander, not least because the Venezuelan orchestra’s sound was too limited in depth and variety to keep up the interest at this speed. The Second Concerto, in B Flat Major, went better. The orchestral backdrop was still raw, but Barenboim lifted the concerto to a lofty vantage point, from where he looked out over a vast, glowing, romantic landscape.
The evening was worth it just for his conjuring of multifarious trills, resplendent, expressive, fevered, even playful. Sixty years at the piano is enough to make a magician.
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