Daniel Barenboim has recently undertaken a solo European tour — in the midst of extensive engagements elsewhere, not least his Beethoven Concerto cycle in London — in honour of Chopin's bicentenary. Barenboim played the first of two dates in Brussels' Bozar Centre this evening. He offered an illustrious (attendees included European Commission President José Manuel Barroso) and elated audience three separate encores, in addition to the main programme. All three encores, needless to say, were from the Chopin catalogue.
The tour, on tonight's evidence, provides audiences with the opportunity to witness a pianist who at the age of 67 is arguably in the finest form of his life. Not especially known for his Chopin, the mature Barenboim brings a range of musical and personal experience to the mysteries and shadows of Chopin's music that invests his playing with a depth that was previously lacking (his 1981 Complete Nocturnes pales in comparison to Arrau and Rubinstein, as it does to the performances tonight).
Straight from the opening work, the Variations Brillantes, Op.12, Barenboim's touch was full of grace, and his tone incomparably sweet. In this work and the following Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2 in D-Major, Barenboim drew out sound that appeared intimate with silence, built gossamer textures weak to the touch, yet maintained vigour all the same. Great humour filled the playing, too; particular whimsy in the right hand variations in the first work brought out smiling attacks, whilst drawn out downbeats and adamant pulses had the pianist jumping in his seat for the sheer thrill of it all. If, occasionally, the phrasing stumbled a little, or the legato was not as smooth as it could have been, the ineffable profundity of the playing easily compensated.
A remarkable freshness permeated each performance. It gets said a lot, but this evening Barenboim genuinely seemed to be re-composing the works as he played, invigorating the old designs with new detail and new weight. Each melody and chord, phrase and cadence, seemed under inquisition: Barenboim made you feel as if you could take nothing for granted. Even in the most famous works events were contingent upon the pianist finding a reason for their appearance. Each re-appearance of the quaver theme in the C-sharp minor Waltz of the Op. 64 set, for example, teetered on silence, before being sung again, each time with a new inflection and a new justification. The arch form of the rowing, propulsive Barcarolle, Op. 60 became saturated with portent, even amidst such delightfully sweet and buoyant playing. The relentless left-hand accompaniment to the Berceuse, Op. 57, attained sweet serenity by Barenboim's touch. With sublime poetry came bawdy, driving energy: the closing Polonaise, Op. 53, had Barenboim at his most animated, enlivening the frictions of the two themes with a compelling sense of argument, and positively jumping on each return of the main theme (though return sounds too automatic for this performance) into some of the largest downbeats I've ever heard given on a single piano.
The highlight of the evening, though, had to be the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35, which closed out the first half. Such an enigmatic work fits perfectly with the mature, probing, even philosophical performing style Barenboim has cultivated. Sure enough its strange forms and its bottomless depths had a peerless marshal tonight. The più lento section of the scherzo was dream-vivid; hallucinatory, yet prone with melancholy. Once again the music felt conjured and at the same time deeply contingent. The ebbs and flows of the Funeral March were hard to get a handle on. Major-key release was merely stacked against the tolling motif of the minor, only occasionally played in terms of transition, as an answer, as opposed to a mere interruption of tragedy. The Finale, in all its ghostly and meek fury, gave the first half an uncanny conclusion. The second half, on the other hand, closed with everyone on their feet, giving passionate acclaim for what had been a consistenly stupendous performance.
Photo: Daniel Barenboim
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