Thursday, February 21, 2008

Barenboim at last

So Sunday morning a blog comment pops into my inbox from our Ozzie-in-London reader Anne, offering a ticket for Barenboim's last Beethoven recital that afternoon. I dropped everything (indeed certain people would be justified in not talking to me for a while) and ran.

It was indeed a remarkable occasion.

Got there to see banks of seats in the foyer where usually there are none: the box office area looked like hospital outpatients, with around 40-50 people sitting in wait for returns. On the ballroom floor, a big screen was ready to relay the concert to the overflow - at first there were about 20 seats in front of it, but many more appeared as if by magic as time wore on.

In a boxed-out area near the Mandela door, a film about Barenboim was being screened, so I went to have a look. He talked about how his grandparents arrived in Buenos Aires from Russia and got married on the boat, how there was always music in the apartment because everyone who visited was there for a piano lesson with his parents, and how the Argentinian capital was a melting pot of religions and nationalities over which nobody worried for an instant. Then someone's mobile rang and instead of soaking up the maestro's words of wisdowm we were all treated to her bellowed conversation: "I'M IN THE ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL WATCHING A FILM ABOUT BARENBOIM, IT'S ABSOLUTELY FASCINATING..."

No mobiles in the concert, though. A saintly silence prevailed, except for coughing between movements. Barenboim strode on to huge applause. At the risk of upsetting fans here, I'd say he could give us all a lesson in how to make the most of an entrance. He stands, holding the attention for a good while, gazing about, before bowing; he generously turns his attention to each section of the audience in turn - left, centre, right, and everyone sitting behind the piano...

Rather than placing the three last sonatas together, Barenboim had chosen to mix the early, middle and late works in each programme. This one consisted of Op.14 No.1, Op.7, Op.54 and Op.111. Several points stood out a mile. One was how anybody could make the harmless little Op.14 No.1 sound like a masterpiece. The next was how Op.7, which I love and have learned, but seemed to be hearing for the first time, could suddenly shine out as the Eroica Symphony and Fidelio rolled into one. And a third: Barenboim literally made the piano sound like an orchestra. Every phrase seemed to be assigned an instrumentation, and by some bizarre alchemy the sound of that instrument came gliding out of the Steinway. No doubt about it: the final phrase before the last deep trill of the introduction of Op.111 was a trio of French horns. Don't ask how he does it: I've no idea.

Later a record producer friend remarked to me: "Normally, if I heard someone play the piano like this, I'd say he ought to become a conductor." And in terms of velocity and accuracy Barenboim's technique, to be frank, ain't what it used to be. Anyone who doesn't allow for pianists to play wrong notes or occasional unevennesses wouldn't have been happy. But if musicianship of old-fashioned, idealistic grandeur, seriousness of purpose and deep, complete assimilation of not just the music but the kernel of its spirit still counts for anything in this mad world, this was the proof.

I've recently been reading a book by Swami Omananda Puri, a.k.a. the second Mrs John Foulds (real name Maud McCarthy) which is filled with extraordinary soundbites of eastern philosophical wisdom. She asserts that Beethoven kept a copy of the Upanishads on his desk. I can't say whether or not this is true, but hearing Barenboim play the second movement of Op.111, I could believe it.

Who can interpret what lies behind late Beethoven? Yet to me it has never seemed clearer that the variations follow a mystical pattern. Simplicity and purity; growing life that builds to full tilt (if a somewhat stately version in Barenboim's hands); subsiding into exhaustion and the temptation of death's freedom; transformation of the soul beyond the body; heaven; and finally a descent into the simplicity and purity of rebirth. Too much of a mystical absorption to allow for tears, but later I compared notes with a friend who, like me, has lost much close family - we had both experienced lingering thoughts of them.

You may think all this is tripe, of course, but it's a true reflection what went through my mind listening to this concert - so take it or leave it.

Something about the afternoon felt deeply valedictory. All right, it was the last concert of a very intense series, but I know I wasn't the only person present wondering whether we will ever see Barenboim play these pieces again here. There's no particular reason to believe that we won't - but this felt like a farewell, the end of an era.

There was a good ten-second silence at the end. Then the clapping, and everyone stood up straight away. Was the applause for Barenboim's playing, or his personality, idealism and downright statesmanship in being one of the few public figures who talks any sense about the Israeli-Palestinian situation? I suspect the split was respectively about 40% to 60%.

I still prefer his old recording from the 1960s. But I'm glad I was there.