Thursday, February 07, 2008

Daniel Barenboim plays Beethoven (Royal Festival Hall)

There are so many things I could say about Barenboim's playing. It's unshowy, deeply humane and puts music above shallow showmanship at all times. When at the end of the Appassionata Sonata he works himself into such a frenzy that he pounds the pedals and the floor violently with his feet it comes across as the perfectly natural unleashing of tension and passion that he has held carefully in check up till now. It's a pleasure to hear him play the two op. 49 sonatas, the "easy" ones that even I can (or at least used to be able to) have a stab at. There's no danger of being overwhelmed by sheer technique, as you would in one of the more note-stuffed sonatas, and yet of course you see his brilliant technical abilities all the more, and see it entirely in a musical light. I come away thiunking I'm glad I saw him play these simple (but not simplistic) pieces rather than one of the phenominally difficult warhorses that you can hear any pro playing most weeks.

I could also talk about his lack of pomposity or self-importance, his air of absolute straightforwardness and openness, the wonderful intimacy created by his having audience all around him, rather than being perched in front of us on a stage, unreachable and separate.

But the thing I keep noticing is the handkerchief. He mops his brow with it, then throws it into the piano, then retrieves it again later. There's one point where he does this in the middle of a movement, while only his right hand is occupied with the keyboard, which lends a brief nervousness to my mood. But mostly the handkerchief stays out of sight, only momentarily appearing between sonatas. It's such a mundane thing, but it sticks with me, and somehow seems to stand for what it is about him that makes this such a satisfying evening, filled with insight and humanity.

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