The Illusion of Infinity
The Pianist Daniel Barenboim
What makes a performance brilliant? This question would likely cause us great difficulties if a compelling answer had not already been given by someone truly in the know. Alfred Brendel asserted that a brilliant performance is one “that is correct and, at the same time, audacious. A correct performance shows us how it should be done. An audacious one surprises us with a revelation: what we believed impossible becomes true. Part of this audacity is to give a rendition that captivates the audience under the performer’s spell”.
Anyone who has ever been to a piano recital featuring Daniel Barenboim or heard him as a soloist performing a piano concerto by Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms will know how much wisdom underpins this maxim. There is something inescapably captivating about this pianist. He challenges us (and our opposing views), opens doors of perception, lures us into spheres that are closed to the normality of everyday life; in short, he invites us on a journey with an uncertain outcome. Is this not what makes art so great? The fact that art makes us nervous? Well, greatness is not a permanent state. It changes in parallel with the mutations to which history is subjected. Yet greatness can still be preserved, as for example in a CD box-set displaying the pianist Daniel Barenboim in all his great versatility (including as an outstanding interpreter of pieces by Pergolesi, Kabalevsky and Shostakovich in a hitherto unknown, early recording).
Let’s go back to August 19, 1950, the day on which a seven-year-old boy in Buenos Aires gave his first piano recital. The audience was mesmerized by his resounding performance. This boy’s talents transcended many boundaries. Word of this miraculous child started to spread. True miracles, however, exist only in fairy tales and our imagination. The world of music is set within other parameters. And the boy, whose most important role-model was Claudio Arrau, had already internalized them even at this stage. According to Barenboim, “A principle that was hammered into me early, and which I still adhere to, is never to play any note mechanically”.
There are continuous lines that can be traced throughout a person’s life. The aforementioned principle is a fine example in the case of Daniel Barenboim. This conviction was strengthened when he met Arthur Rubinstein, from whom he adopted the premise that every note must have a nucleus and a natural, expressive quality. He has faithfully followed that rule to this day, no matter what score is on the stand before him. Barenboim would thus appear to be a natural Romantic: a musician of subjective sentiment. This classification holds true only to a limited extent, though: his expressive urge is complemented by a sharp intellect that seems to detect paradoxes in each composition; moreover, his sparkling wit lends a refined touch of class to his espressivo passages or, to paraphrase Kant, does not follow laws but instead formulates them.
This wittiness can once again be heard here, even on the early recordings for the Westminster label (CDs 33–38), which include Barenboim’s legendary interpretation of the Diabelli Variations of September 1965, as well as sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven. Even when compared with the Deutsche Grammophon recordings made some 25 years later, these early recordings demonstrate remarkable maturity: every note he plays, no matter how insignificant, is full of substance and has a naturally expressive quality. This alone would certainly not suffice to accomplish something special. After all, notes are just building-blocks that need to be linked together in a musical and semantic order. In fact, this is where one of Barenboim’s main strengths lies. He draws on an enduring legato style to generate cantabile energies whilst displaying an expressiveness that, of all the great pianists, only his compatriot Martha Argerich can match. Perhaps this is a question of temperament.
After all, there is something else that unites these two exceptional artists: a predilection for extremes. Daniel Barenboim champions a clear view on this matter: “A politician can only work and do good if he masters the art of compromise … The artist’s expression is only determined by his total refusal to compromise in anything – the element of courage.” A study of his approach to Beethoven’s sonatas clarifies what he means: his playing style often tests each and every piece to its limits. He eschews run-of-the-mill euphony and advocates fragmentation. Everything is craggy, rugged and jagged. A typical example is Barenboim’s interpretation of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, in which the pianist asks what might be called fundamental questions of life and gives very uncomfortable answers to them. The pianist does not celebrate the “Hammerklavier” Sonata as a spectacular display of sound but rather exhibits its semantic elements. He is unrivalled in his ability to break up conventional forms and bring out rhapsodic elements, thus affirming Theodor Adorno’s view that Beethoven’s late style is comparable with mature, wizened fruits: “Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation. They lack all the harmony that the classicist aesthetic is in the habit of demanding from works of art, and they show more traces of history than of growth.” Barenboim draws on this spirit to interpret this sonata and others as an extremely acute conflict between frenzy and petrification.
This approach suits his way of uniting philosophy and art. Barenboim has read his Spinoza; he knows how musical sound is created and circulates, and how it can be altered on the keyboard. This realization particularly helps him with Liszt. Barenboim’s delivery never degenerates into a superficial, effect-seeking furore. What we hear instead is a narrative coherence, a serene and distinctive sound that affords a clear view of the demonic side of the “Dante” Sonata. Moreover, an urge can be felt, a striving for sublime expression, even at the cost of loneliness; this urge is coupled with a witty playfulness that, of all the great pianists, was embraced only by Horowitz and by Barenboim’s revered Rubinstein.
As is generally the case with Barenboim, his deliberately pointed emphasis is evident in this performance, albeit in a filtered, more incisive form. The poetic moments of his Liszt interpretations notably exude a bewitching appeal to the senses. His recording of the Petrarch Sonnets is a prime example: like virtually no other, he succeeds in completing a melodic cycle in piano/pianissimo spanning many bars and long periods of time; even when there is a pause in this development, he magically injects electric energy. Few pianists can bring out the descant line with such delicacy and refinement as Barenboim.
His interpretations of the Romantic composers Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms are perfused with the same spirit. The recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes is considered a benchmark because it unites the extremes and reveals hitherto unheard aspects: on the one hand, Barenboim transforms the composer’s almost unendurable yearning – that striving for harmony, both within the world and within himself, which exasperated him throughout his life – into animated soundscapes. On the other, his playing style reveals the revolutionary formal solution that Chopin’s music followed in Beethoven’s wake, and subtly hints at a Classical style that had actually been suspended in the final works of the great master from Bonn. Barenboim’s interpretations of Chopin bring this Classical quality back to the surface again. This is evident even in his recording of the G minor Ballade (CD 32), though it stands out for another reason: Barenboim performed this piece (as well as some Scarlatti sonatas, pieces by Liszt and Beethoven’s C minor Variations) on a new piano designed specially for him by the Belgian instrument-maker Chris Maene. The sound of this “Barenboim” piano presented to the public in 2015 is arguably more transparent, bright and lucid on account of its straight parallel strings. In short, the instrument is a real alternative to everything offered on the grand piano market. Barenboim is thoroughly impressed: “I’ve fallen in love with it; I want to spend as much time with it as possible.”
No matter how good an instrument is, it still needs a master to breathe life into it. Such a spirit might be felt when one looks holistically at the sublime artistry of this remarkable pianist, whose brilliant interpretations of Schubert are likewise so wonderfully documented: the way he makes the dialectic of the works comprehensible for us and constantly supplements the magic of the music with a counterspell that is needed to show this magic in all its radiance. Daniel Barenboim wrote the following in his book A Life in Music: “As human beings we do not possess infinite qualities, but as musicians I believe we can extend our finite power to a point where we can create an illusion of infinity.” We believe that this profound truth, so placidly expressed, shows a deep understanding of the power of music.