Daniel Barenboim - Royal Festival Hall, 17 February 2008
Sonata in E, No 9
Sonata in E flat, No 4
Sonata in F, No 22
Sonata in C minor, No 32
The sense of occasion accompanying each one of Daniel Barenboim's performances seemed magnified today for this, the final performance in his Beethoven sonata series.
For the whole three week period, a TV screen in the foyer has been looping a pre-recorded Barenboim interview. There was a horde packed round it before the concert, even though, with a limited number of free headphones provided, only a lucky few could actually hear it. Others had grabbed foyer seats for the free live relay of the concert itself. I gave up counting the returns queue at fifty, and this only minutes before the start time.
Inside the auditorium, insufferably hot today, the lights were taken right down for Barenboim's entrance. Appropriately dressed for the 3pm start, with a short coat in place of the longer one he's worn for the evening concerts, he walked around the stage and acknowledged the welcoming applause for a minute. Not the least of the reasons for his warm reception has to be the the appreciation that he graciously demonstrates for any ovation. Too many performers simply stomp on and rush off, seemingly unaware that the audience has come to experience their performance rather than simply hear their interpretation, which, let's face it, we could all do with our CDs at home, but Barenboim has thankfully not fallen into this trap.
Today's programme, more than any other except perhaps the first one in Barenboim's series, demonstrated Beethoven's journey from classicism on to a new musical language. One of the revelations of this series has been Barenboim's deft charm in the early sonatas, and he didn't disappoint with the crystalline sparkle of the delightful No 9.
After this, we shot abruptly to the other end of the scale, where Barenboim played out the dramatic contrasts of No 4 with violent abandon, the alarming roughly-hammered con brio opening followed by a largo of such soporific repose that my opera-loving neighbour actually drifted off ("this is why I don't come to recitals..." she claimed "...too quiet").
Through all these reports, I haven't yet mentioned the concert programme, but it is an excellent one, with notes by the perspicacious William Kinderman. At only £4 and covering all eight concerts, it's a bargain by grasping South Bank standards. Professor Kinderman writes of No 22 that the first movement has "two contrasting themes - a gracious, dignified feminine theme resembling a minuet and a stamping, assertive, masculine theme". Beneath the manly mitts of Daniel Barenboim, both of the first movement's themes were thundered out in decidedly masculine fashion, but at least my neighbour was now awake and alert. And it formed a masterful contrast to the anxiously arpeggiated second movement and its successful resolution in the finale.
What would drain many performers seems to energise Barenboim, and despite everything he'd put in to the earlier parts of the programme, he seemed to have more left for Beethoven's final sonata. The violent declamation of the first movement formed a stunning contrast to the pensive opening of the second, which is a series of variations. The pin-drop silence maintained throughout was testament to its riveting effect on every single member of the audience. The expansive syncopations of the third variation displayed perhaps the most startlingly original point of Barenboim's interpretation, but the finale too, in its marmoreal sublimity, will be etched into my mind for a very long time.
The gap of several seconds between the final note and the start of the applause (and - inevitable? - standing ovation) was proof, if any were needed, that the audience were attuned as one to the performance. I had sort of assumed that the showman in Barenboim (and don't doubt this is a major part of his makeup) might leave his most spectacular performance to last, but never imagined that the artist in Barenboim might make it such a magnificent one.
In addition to the applause, today Daniel Barenboim received several personally-delivered bouquets from ladies in the audience. He looked surprised, but accepted them with the same grace that has dignified every other mark of appreciation.
For some reason (probably South Bank inefficiency), I didn't get the invite to the post-concert reception that other full-series purchasers had. But I blagged my way in (I loathe doing this, so undignified when you're over 19 ---- h8 u Southbank).
In the event, Daniel Barenboim only made a brief appearance (he said he had a flight to catch), but it was almost inevitably a memorable one. He said he'd thought this would be the last time he'd do the full Beethoven series, but this had given him the itch to do more. He thanked the audience for being quiet in the performance, but loud in their applause, and said it was usually the reverse, with a lot of noisy coughing. This got a big laugh, not least because each movement of the earlier concerts had been demarcated by coughtastic eruptions, but whatevs, the sentiment was appreciated, and what could have been a disappointment in the brevity of his appearance was magically transformed into a Moment, something that will remain in my memory as long as the performance itself.
This blog (in Japanese) has some more photos, taken from the platform: