wed 23/04/2014

Daniel Barenboim, Tate Modern | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Daniel Barenboim, Tate Modern

Chopin a casualty in the great struggle between pianist and building

'Barenboim isn't a pianist that can just turn his hand to anything and magic up a masterpiece'
It had all the hallmarks of being an almighty car crash of an event. Barenboim? Chopin? Turbine Hall? You might as well have dumped the piano at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Actually, acoustically, it wasn't quite that bad. It sounded as if Barenboim was playing next door. Next door in France, that is. Or Germany. Which was where he and five members of the Berlin Staatskapelle had flown in from.
 

Perhaps it was worth another go. Classical music recitals have never been properly tried in the Turbine Hall before (though similar things have and have failed). Certainly Barenboim wasn't to blame. I doubt he even knew what the Turbine Hall was. He only arrived 30 minutes before the start of the concert. And Decca, under whose auspices this surprise event was taking place, can't be held responsible. They were just very valiantly trying to flog some of Barenboim's new Chopin CDs.

Someone, however, was to blame for flying in five members of the Berlin Staatskapelle to accompany Barenboim in one measly movement of the chamber version of the First Piano Concerto. Chopin's orchestral cushion is hardly riveting stuff. And in this arrangement, and in this hall, it became a barely audible, ill-defined hum. It would have been just as musically worthwhile to resurrect the infamous Turbine Hall electronic purr as accompaniment.

And why only the slow movement? That made more sense. No doubt Barenboim realised as soon as he stepped into this Jonah's whale of a place that nothing that didn't shift at a snail's pace (dolphins could have learnt how to walk in the time he spent on the two waltzes) could make any musical headway in a hall of this size and decided instead to settle on a few choice morsels that wouldn't be flattened. So we got four works in total. Four. Each desperately padded out with chit-chat. The usual Barenboim shtick. A mixture of the worst of Tony Blair and the best of Nicholas Parsons. Even in this diehard crowd it didn't go down well. He was greeted with a series of the most erudite catcalls in history: "Ballade in F minor!", "Waltz in B minor!" Needless to say, Barenboim did not enjoy being treated like a performing monkey. A tetchy side was being teased out of this great Gandhi.

And the music? Well, it wasn't a car crash. Not quite. Barenboim's too much of a pro for that. But it wasn't much of a musical experience. What we witnessed resembled more of a wrestling match, an Olympian tussle between man and building, Barenboim and hall. His first tack was to work with it. Allow the space to turn everything he played to mush. That was all very well for the concerto Romance. It withstood the Classic FM-ing. In fact, it gained something from being re-edited by the vagaries of resonance. The way the string accompaniment became a fuzzy blanket of distant noise was rather brilliant. I also don't think I've heard a piano line sound more pearly; Barenboim's slow melodic line seemed to relish swimming around that hall. But the effect had the interest not of music but of a very fine art installation.

The smaller works that followed had sharper changes of mood and dynamic direction. They had to become more than just dreamy, disjointed sonic baubles. They had to work as fully formed worlds. A monumental task in this hall. You could see the effort on Barenboim's brow. It was like he was attempting to manoeuvre the Titanic through a brook. Too big a push and the sound would never end. Too small and it wouldn't budge. So he heaved and he hoed, distorting the Nocturne in D flat major out of all proportion, adding bass octaves to the (in Barenboim's hands, five) Minute Waltz, struggling to tame the invisible rival that was the emptiness around him. Despite atmospheric changes of scene, the Barcarole ultimately descended into a bash-up.

 

Odd little rubato flutters gusted away flatulently at the start of the D-flat Nocturne apropos of nothing

One couldn't just blame acoustics, however. His legions of crazed fans massed in the hall stretching out their hands for just one feel of this modern Messiah will no doubt disagree but Barenboim isn't a pianist that can just turn his hand to anything and magic up a masterpiece. Mention his name in pianophile company and it is quickly dismissed. Live, he can upturn these expectations. The Beethoven cycle was without doubt a glorious thing. But he has a tendency to over-manipulate the musical line in a capricious way. (It is no coincidence that Lang Lang is a protégé.) Odd little rubato flutters, for example, gusted away flatulently at the start of the D-flat Nocturne apropos of nothing. This sort of thing would have been the same wherever he'd played the recital.

All this acoustical and stylistic idiosyncrasy might not have been good for us. But, ironically, it did him and his shaky technique no harm. Solecisms only began to get noticed when they started creeping into the melody in the Barcarole. It should have been enough to dock him a standing ovation. But then, as Barenboim himself said last night, the public are sometimes wrong. We were wrong, he said, to ignore Mahler for half a century. We were also wrong to attend last night's recital.

The effect had the interest not of music but of a very fine art installation

Buy