Beethoven For All: The Piano Concertos
Daniel Barenboim has recorded the Beethoven Piano Concertos as soloist three times. The first was with conductor Otto Klemperer in the late 1960s, when Barenboim was very young and Klemperer very old. That set still sounds remarkably fine, and is full of interest: the conductor curbs Barenboim’s youthful excesses, while the pianist stretches the elder’s imagination. Then there was a recording with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted, like the new set, by the soloist. That received cool reviews but had much to offer. Now Decca releases these live performances recorded in Bochum, Germany, five years ago
They are the work of someone who knows these pieces inside out and is still searching for new things in them. Listening closely I found a great deal of mannerism, over‑emphasis, point-making and pseudo-spontaneous ‘insights’. There are also passages of pure magic. In the slow movement of the Emperor, just when I was expecting distortion, there is sublime simplicity and wonderful limpid tone; it’s an altogether spellbinding account. But that is followed by a galumphing last movement, where it is hard to know whether technical inadequacy or wilfulness is to blame for the laboured execution.
Barenboim is at pains to stress the combative quality in Beethoven. But that results in, among other things, a dynamic range more suited to mature Liszt. You don’t need to be an ‘authenticist’ to feel that Barenboim’s bangs and whispers are at odds with Beethoven, or that the frequent disconcerting surprises are written into the scores and need no underlining. All told, I felt that this was more a guided tour of the Concertos, with an over-enthusiastic guide in charge, than a performance of them. As so often, Barenboim remains a puzzling, fascinating, frustrating musician. Michael Tanner, frustrating musician.