Somewhere in my earliest musical memories, a black- and-white TV presents a sliver of sonic heaven, as a stocky young pianist with blazing eyes and a forest of dusky curls plays Mozart. Over the years, that figure – Daniel Barenboim – has remained a still point in a turning musical world. He started at the top and, as both pianist and conductor, he stayed there. Now that he is turning 80, there’s no point asking ‘Maestro’ (as he is usually called) if he is planning retirement. It’s unthinkable.


Speaking to me from his office in Berlin, Barenboim is as direct as ever. He has always been a person who says what he means and means what he says, articulating his ideas with exceptional clarity and a certain amount of punch. Now he is characteristically upfront about how the Covid pandemic has been for him.

‘When the pandemic started, I was quite quiet about it,’ he says. ‘I used the time to practise things I hadn’t played for a long time. But later I became less and less quiet. I think the pandemic is not only horrific in itself. It also brings with it a kind of general depression for all human beings, a lack of normality that I find very disturbing. I can’t wait for it to go away.’

Whether it will affect orchestral touring long-term, he says, is not clear. Earlier this year, of eight concerts in Germany and France he was due to give with his Berlin Staatskapelle, only three took place. ‘It’s understandable, but the financial difficulties, the inability to travel normally, all the paperwork – it really makes life very complex.’

Barenboim himself is complex at the best of times. Twenty years ago, Paul Smaczny made a documentary about him called Multiple Identities, an appropriate title given his myriad influences and activities. He was born in Buenos Aires in 1942, to a family of Russian Jewish immigrants: one set of grandparents had met on the boat to Argentina. Both his parents were piano teachers. ‘Whenever the doorbell rang, it was somebody coming for a piano lesson,’ he recalls. ‘In my childish brain, everyone played the piano!’ He gave his first concert aged seven. When he was ten, his family moved to Israel. Two years later, at Igor Markevitch’s conducting masterclass in Salzburg, he came to the attention of the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who declared him a phenomenon.

Barenboim’s two strands as pianist and conductor ran concurrently almost from the beginning – the two activities not so much feeding one another as presenting different manifestations of the same musical outlook. ‘To play the piano in an interesting way, you have to think orchestrally, in the way you balance the chords and look for different colours,’ Barenboim says. ‘It’s nothing to do with my being a conductor or not. I used to play piano, before I became a conductor too.

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‘The piano is a very neutral instrument. Any weight you put on the key will make a sound – if you just put an ashtray on the E flat, the note sounds. But the neutrality gives you so many possibilities. It is like painting on a white wall, as opposed to a wall of green or yellow or black. Its neutrality means that you can really develop all sorts of sounds from this rather unimpressive start.’

Having heard him evoke an extraordinary spectrum in his cycles of Beethoven and Schubert sonatas in London, I want to know how he does it. ‘If you have orchestral colours in your head, you will find the physical means,’ he says. ‘One note cannot be expressive on the piano. You can play a very expressive one note on the violin, cello or viola, but not on the piano, because the instrument doesn’t have this disposition. It is the connection between two notes or more that makes the beauty of the sound on the piano. It cannot sustain a note at the same length as a stringed or wind instrument – when you put pressure on the note, the note makes the sound and it starts immediately to disappear. Therefore, playing the piano means a constant relation of the note with time, because the time eats up the note. The piano is an instrument of illusion. And this is one of the great pleasures of playing it.’

When he turned 75, two boxed sets of his recordings were issued: 39 CDs as pianist, 46 as conductor. Now there are even more. Barenboim’s latest piano album is Encores, a programme of favourite short works: a Chopin Nocturne, Debussy’s ‘Clair de lune’ and so on. ‘“Encore” is a very nice word,’ he remarks, allowing a twinkle into his voice. ‘It means “more” in French, but it is translated in different ways. In Spanish, the worst of all, it is called “propina”: a tip, like a tip in a restaurant, and this is horrible!’ He is at pains to point out that an encore after a recital ‘is not a given’.

He has seen plenty of changes in the way recordings are made, ever since his own first experiences of it in 1956, aged 13. ‘I remember when CDs started coming out in the early 1980s: all these magnificent possibilities came in the sound and it was terribly complex and expensive. And now people hear music on the telephone.

‘Record companies will hate me for saying this, but actually they know, I think: music is basically impossible to record. Music is there to be heard as a one and only time. We have been very lucky to have had radio first, and then the old 78s. And then the long-playing record, and the little ones, the 45s, then stereo, then the CD. All this for make-believe!

‘Basically, the difference between listening to a record and listening to a live performance is like this: if you’re deeply in love with someone, a recording is like having a photograph of that person, but going to the concert is like having her with you. Streaming is wonderful in this time of Covid and we can only be grateful for it, but it’s like having a very good photograph of a person.’

Recently, Barenboim has spoken publicly about Jacqueline du Pré for the first time since her death in 1987 from multiple sclerosis. In a BBC4 documentary, Daniel Barenboim: In His Own Words, he reveals something of the artistic glory, passion and tragedy of their relationship. Their marriage has passed into the realm of legend – there is even a ballet about du Pré, The Cellist, by choreographer Cathy Marston, including a character called ‘The Conductor’. It was only in 2011 that Barenboim returned to conducting the Elgar Cello Concerto, the work most strongly associated with du Pré, resulting in an award-winning recording with the American cellist Alisa Weilerstein and the Berlin Staatskapelle.

His life had already moved on by the time du Pré died. The Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova (daughter of the pianist Dmitri Bashkirov) became his second wife and one of their two sons, Michael, is now a well-established violin soloist. For a long spell they lived in Paris, where Barenboim was music director of the Orchestre de Paris from 1975-89. His next appointment, another long tenure, was with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1991-2006). Soon he was splitting his time between the US and Germany: he was appointed Staatskapellmeister of Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden and its orchestra in 1992, and ‘chief conductor for life’ in 2000.

Hearing his performances with the Staatskapelle, you can be struck by the streamlined, micro-controlled quality as much as its dark-hued string tone and technicolour brass playing. Barenboim is adamant about how that sense of unity works: ‘An orchestra that sounds well means that the whole orchestra breathes the same way and with the same intensity. There are many aspects: the phrasing, the dynamic accents, the legato, so many things. But basically you must make them breathe as if there was one major lung for the whole orchestra.

‘I’m very happy conducting the Staatsoper,’ he says, ‘because I feel we all think the same way about what we are playing, the same dynamic, the same line. Now, it doesn’t mean that it will always stay like this. Once the concert is over, if the musicians have different opinions about it, if they think something was maybe a little slow, that’s absolutely OK – but they must think the same while playing. I don’t claim that there is only one way to play every piece of music. Not at all. But for every piece, while the orchestra is playing, they must all think the same about it.’

Back in 2019, allegations against him of bullying and a ‘temperamental’ or ‘autocratic’ approach surfaced from some of the orchestral players. Autocracy and temper are scarcely new to the conducting profession – even if they are thankfully less prevalent in it than they used to be – which may partly explain why Barenboim did not experience ‘cancellation’ by a spat of public outrage. The incident certainly hit the headlines, but the Staatsoper management stood by him, renewing his contract as general music director until 2027. That year Barenboim will turn 85.

Meanwhile he works as closely as ever with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he co-created in 1999 with the Palestinian scholar Edward Said, bringing young musicians from Israel and Arabic nations to work together and exchange ideas. Barenboim became in 2008 the first person to hold both an Israeli and a Palestinian passport, the latter presented to him in recognition of his efforts towards this exceptional cultural exchange.

The West-Eastern Divan too has been struck by the pandemic’s restrictions: Barenboim says that last year they managed just a few concerts in Salzburg. In May 2022, a significant European tour with Smetana’s Má vlast is planned, culminating in the Prague Spring Festival. ‘I will be desolate if that gets cancelled,’ he remarks.

Yet whatever transpires, Barenboim’s determination is undimmed: music can, will and must continue helping to bridge the gulfs between people. ‘It’s what music is about and what happens when there is a concert and people come to it,’ he says. ‘I remember playing Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier and Goldberg Variations in Ramallah, and a feeling of community on evenings like this, which gives a lot of spiritual energy to the audiences there. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a political conflict, it is a human conflict. It is two people who each believe they have the right to live on the same territory without the other, and this is not a constructive human way of thinking. The political developments of this problem are very unhealthy and nasty.’

Having established the orchestra as a beloved international presence, Barenboim went on to realise a further cherished dream: the creation of the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin, a state-of-the-art conservatoire beside the Staatsoper with a magnificent new Frank Gehry-designed concert hall, the Pierre Boulez Saal, at its heart. Here the ideals of the West-Eastern Divan are being expanded. When its doors opened in 2016, Barenboim called it ‘an experiment in utopia’ as 90 talented Middle Eastern students were offered the chance to study there.

On the night the London Olympics opened in 2012, Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan gave a roof-raising account of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the BBC Proms, followed by one of the idealistic speeches we have almost come to expect from him (perhaps even more than musical encores). A couple of hours later, he walked into the Olympic opening ceremony as one of four great humanitarians, each carrying one corner of the Olympic flag.

No other conductor could have fulfilled such a role. Barenboim’s extra cut-through perhaps lies in his consciousness of the parallels between musical processes and those of life itself – and his ability to convey this idea in his performances. In his book Everything is Connected, he demonstrates that music is palpably a metaphor for life and society, or at least for a society that works. To give one example, he writes: ‘What is, ultimately, perhaps the most difficult lesson for the human being – learning to live with discipline yet with passion, with freedom yet with order – is evident in any single phrase of music.’


Now he says simply: ‘Music is utopia’. We have him to thank for keeping that ideal alive


jessica Duchen
Jessica DuchenJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Jessica Duchen studied music at Cambridge University and was the classical music correspondent for The Independent from 2004 to 2016. She has also written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, BBC Music Magazine and the JC, among others.