Barenboim is a master, and should be celebrated as such.
Daniel Ross 2011
Daniel Barenboim has said before that the art of playing the piano is not so clearly defined as playing, say, a woodwind instrument. It is, according to him, a neutral instrument and requires some serious sleight of hand to achieve those all-important emotional colours. It’s obvious that he has struggled with the piano over the years, if only by virtue of having such a long career with such high standards reached; but this disc of two live-recorded Chopin concerti shows him in ebullient form. The release occurs simultaneously with two other discs of Barenboim splendour as part of a celebration of his 60 years as a performer, variously as a soloist and as conductor with his beloved West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (who grumpily and entertainingly bash through Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony to great effect).
Unsurprisingly, even the piano entry at the beginning of the Chopin concerto disc is striking. The languid orchestral tutti that opens the work has its calmness well and truly shattered by the clang of Barenboim’s fingers. He shows equal lightness of touch later on, though. Towards the end of the first movement of the E minor concerto, there’s a heart-stoppingly delicate interplay between piano and a suppressed bassoon, neither wanting to tread on the toes of the other. Instinctually, Barenboim’s playing reacts even to the slightest of accompaniments in the spirit of collaboration. For good reason, he’s considered as much a leveller of conflicts in both music and in person.
The second concerto, with its melodies politely nabbed from Carl Maria von Weber, is just as joyous to hear under the maestro’s control. The subtleties of the Maestoso seem to flow as a stream of consciousness rather than with any great over-thought, while the following Larghetto is steered sufficiently to avoid mawkishness and is instead a bewitching fantasy. If there were one hole to pick, some of the blurrier quaver passages are perhaps not as sharp as he would’ve played them as a precocious 20-something, but it matters so little when the phrasing and emotional understanding is this strong. Age has not eroded his ability to communicate.
As probably the most widely interpreted of composers for the piano, Chopin’s music is always open to new vision and revision, but it is a singular treat to hear Barenboim have at these concerti for the first time. Indeed, it’s a surprise to learn that he never has recorded them, and they form the most rewarding disc of the three releases. Barenboim’s flame remains inextinguishable, his verve undimmed by time or familiarity. Truly, he is a master and should be celebrated as such.