Author Topic: Daniel Barenboim Plays Beethoven, Take 4 (?)  (Read 470 times)

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Offline Todd

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Daniel Barenboim Plays Beethoven, Take 4 (?)
« on: December 16, 2020, 06:05:51 AM »


Daniel Barenboim has recorded a lot of Beethoven.  A lot.  A whole lot.  Basically all the famous stuff, often more than once.  I was fully satisfied with his three* complete piano sonata cycles, but when this new one appeared, I had to have it for the simple reason that it exists.  One of at least two Covid year cycles, the other being Irina Mejoueva's second cycle, which I plan to buy in 2021, this set constitutes Barenboim's latest thinking on the New Testament of the keyboard.  No more ado will do, so, here goes.

The set is presented in sonata number order, which is probably the best overall way.  The F Minor opens with an Allegro of reasonable speed, dynamic contrasts, and above all, clarity.  The upper and lower registers sound clean and distinct with nice decay characteristics, and the coda has some oomph.  The Adagio is where it's at, with Barenboim delivering a finely variegated, if at times slightly unsteady touch.  The tonal lustrousness continues in the Menuetto outer sections, though the trio sounds a bit too soft.  The sonata closes with a Prestissimo that has an undulating weight but less than ideal clarity.  The A Major or or less picks up where the first sonata left off.  The Allegro vivace sounds pleasant if perhaps not ideally steady, the Largo appassionato finds Barenboim playing with finely judged touch most of the time, the Scherzo starts off as pure delight before moving to something a bit too slow and then back, while the Rondo sounds pleasant but rather imprecise, to be polite.  (I wonder if whole takes were released.)  The C Major, unfortunately, does not go well.  Barenboim just is not his younger self, and just cannot hit the notes in the Allegro con brio with the accuracy or speed or weight he could in decades past.  To be sure, there are nice moments, but to be equally sure, there are almost (or actual) cringeworthy moments.  (What does it say about Wilhelm Kempff, never a supervirtuoso, and prone to missing the mark, that one not only doesn't mind when he does it in his live 1961 cycle, but one actually embraces some of the errors?  Note perfection isn't everything.)  The Adagio comes off fairly nicely, while the Scherzo is a bit clunky, and the Allegro assai lacks virtuosic flair, and finds Barenboim playing the fastest, trickiest passages a bit more quietly than in years past.  Overall, not the strongest Op 2.

Op 7 starts with an Allegro molto e con brio showing a not ideally steady dotted rhythm, and in a few places it seems Barenboim has to take his time to readjust his hands.  On the upside, the lower register clarity of his piano sounds quite fine.  Fitting the pattern already established, the Largo comes off better, with Barenboim taking his time and the piano's decay and sustain traits adding something slightly different.  The Allegro sounds a bit effortful, but the rumbly left hand playing nonetheless appeals, and the Rondo sounds nice enough in the outer sections, but the middle section just sounds too labored.  Barenboim musters energy and control sufficient to start the C Minor off with nice ascending arpeggios in the Allegro molto e con brio, and he keeps the movement moving forward nicely overall.  The Adagio molto again comes off best, with some lovely right hand playing, and in the Prestissimo, while a bit heavy, Barenboim plays with more pep and drive, delivering a fully satisfying performance.  The F Major fares well enough overall, though it sounds a bit heavy and effortful in the outer movements, though predictably lovely in the slow movement. 

The D Major continues the trend observed to this point: faster movements are played more slowly than normal, but still unsteadily and with effort, and the slow movement is relatively better.  Here, the great Largo lacks the gravity of better versions, but in the (non-) Presto, Barenboim offers some fine touch on the low end of the dynamic spectrum.  In the Pathétique, one gets an old man's take, sapped of energy and drive, limited in dynamics, with the offset of nice touch not replacing what's missing in the opening movement or the closing movement.  The Adagio cantabile does sing a bit, and Barenboim's well-recorded piano tickles the ear in predictable fashion.  Really, given how many other versions one has of this sonata just from Barenboim himself, this one comes off as superfluous.  (I'm partial to his Teldec recording.)  Both Op 14 sonatas end up coming off quite well.  Both sound leisurely in tempo, laid back in style - no spiky sforzandi here - and generally most pleasant.

Op 22 starts with an Allegro con brio a bit short on brio and bit long on stiffness.  Not a good start.  Predictably, the Adagio con molto espressione comes off nicely, and the two closing movements have a sort of laid back, kinda low energy charm, too, but it would be difficult to describe this as a top fifty take.  Op 26 starts off a bit unpromising, but then Barenboim brings the variations to life by playing them with ample musical differentiation, even if the faster passages don't dazzle.  The Scherzo likewise comes off better than expected going in, and the Funeral March sounds satisfyingly serious.  The Allegro, while a bit slow, keeps in line with the conception, and Barenboim delivers a nice take.  In line with what came before, 27/1 is a bit slower than normal, and the Scherzo, which sounds heavy and ponderous, somehow does not sound awful.  Not great.  But not awful.  That's more or less the tale of the rest of the sonata, too.  Clearly, Op 26 marks the high point of this disc, and of the cycle to this point, but old Danny Boy still has it, even if not as much as younger Danny Boy.

Der Mondschein opens effectively enough, with Barenboim playing it - for the five hundredth time, perhaps? - steadily and with a compelling overall feel.  The Allegretto sounds a bit too leisurely, perhaps, while the Presto agitato, with a fairly nice bass line, sounds too stiff. While the Pastorale can come off well when played slowly, the opening Adagio Allegro pushes things too far, and though clear, that just serves to make matters less pleasant.  The sluggishness doesn't impact the Andante quite so much, but it does the Scherzo, while the Rondo at least has the saving grace of appealing right hand playing in places.  Just not all places.  No bueno.  Op 31/1 starts with an Allegro vivace rather too slow, but still attractive and fun.  The same can be written about the Adagio grazioso, but here it becomes clear that timing doesn't mean sounding fast or slow.  Both Herbert Schuch and Minsoo Sohn take even longer, yet they never sounds as slow or labored.  But Barenboim still manages to lavish some love on the melodies that makes it hard to dislike.  (Impossible, actually.)  The concluding Rondo, though a bit stodgy, benefits from ample clarity.  It's certainly the best thing on the disc.

With half the set down, it's no surprise that the same traits appear again starting with the second half.  The Largo portion of the opening of 31/2 comes off pretty well, drawn out and atmospheric, but the Allegro portion is slow and lacks energy and drive.  The Adagio fades nicely, as well, and the closing Allegretto sounds too careful, too timid, too slow, too enervated, and too heavily pedaled.  A dud.  31/3 starts with a leisurely but bouncy Allegro, but then moves to a mischievous, boppin' Scherzo, complete with nice outbursts and some embellishment.  The Menuetto sounds leisurely but lovely, and the Presto con fuoco, while a bit broad and dynamically constrained, also bops along nicely enough, with ample energy and fun.  It's the strongest of the trio.  For some reason, the disc concludes with 49/1 only.  Here, Barenboim's style offers no detriments and yields a lovely, enjoyable gem. 

Unsurprisingly, 49/2 fares as well as 49/1.  Also unsurprisingly, the opening pages of Op 53 sound a bit slow and heavy, and other sections of the Allegro con brio sound slow and lack brio.  It's kind of tired sounding.  Likewise, the Introduzione sounds enervated.  Somehow, though, Barenboim does something nearly miraculous in the opening of the Rondo. He plays it ridiculously slow, and ridiculously beautifully, and it comes off as a hazy fantasy.  As the music unfolds, he never shakes the slowness, and adds some stodginess, but somehow it still works.  The sonata as a whole misfires, though.  Op 54 starts with an In tempo d'un menuetto that sounds more or less conventional in approach - just slowed down.  Ditto the Allegretto, which just does not hold together.  The comes Op 57.  About the only positive thing to write about the Allegro assai is that it does not sound tonally unappealing.  Slow, kludgy, clunky, it drags.  The Andante con moto fares marginally better, but the final movement does not, at least until the coda, where Barenboim cranks things up nicely.  A rather long listen of a disc.

Op 78 comes off pretty well, what, with the quite lovely Adagio cantabile opening and an attractive if somewhat enervated Allegro ma non troppo.  No harms done.  The Allegro vivace retains a soft-edged feel.  So does Op 79, with the slow movement again quite nice, and the outer movements enjoyable.  Harmless playing.  Op 81a follows the by now very familiar pattern, and here the opening movement lacks pretty much any spark of life and the playing sounds too strained and restrained.  The slow movement ain't too bad, with some gentler than gentle pianissimo playing near the end, and the closing movement sounds cheerful enough.  Op 90 sounds a bit potent but also a bit kludgy and definitely a bit too slow in the opening movement, while the second movement does not and cannot really flow because of the tempo and delivery.  Meh-.

The last two discs contain the big ones, the late ones, the greatest great ones.  Given the hit rate of the twenty-seven sonatas up to this point, I did not have super high hopes.  Fortunately, in the opening movement of 101, Barenboim plays with an elevated sound and lovely tone.  Though the march lacks gobs of drive or spiky sforzandi, Barenboim again delivers a nice take, and the Adagio really works well, with that beautiful tone.  The concluding movement gets played in a measured, dynamically constricted manner, and if not ideally clear, it actually fares well enough.  In 106, Barenboim once again goes for the long, slow approach, bringing this rendition in at 13'24".  It's just too long, too slow, too lumbering.  The Scherzo, too.  Barenboim goes for a slow Adagio, and though it sounds attractive in places, it drags on.  The last movement is taken at a tempo slow slow, and played in a style so laborious, that it seems to drag on with no end in sight, a feeling magnified by the unsteady fugal playing.  Oof.

The last disc displays the same strengths and weaknesses.  In 109, the opening movement sounds quite lovely in the slow music, but the Vivace ma non troppo sounds sluggish and unsteady.  The Prestissimo sure sounds like an Andante, though the resultant clarity is nice enough.  The final movement, tracked for variations, is basically about slow, beautiful playing, which then slows down some more, and then some more.  It's not transcendent, but the sheer tonal allure works well, and it overcomes the clunkiness.  Op 110 more or less sounds stylistically the same, with a few passages uncomfortable to listen to as the pianist navigates the music with some difficulty, delivers so-so fugues, so-so repeated chords, and generally makes the piece seem longer than it already happens to be.  Op 111 starts with an attempt at a fast Maestoso and Allegro, but it sounds too unsteady, or worse.  The lower registers, though, lend an appealing weight.  The Arietta starts off dark and slow and appealing, but a bit bland, but then, imperceptibly, Barenboim shifts style and delivers a gorgeous, nearly static, transcendent second half.  The roughly minute and a half transports the listener.  The separately tracked variations start off promisingly, but the second sounds a bit thick, and the third a bit clunky.  Barenboim does deliver some sublime if slow little stars, and some slow trills where the harmonics almost whistle.  Not a strong end to the cycle.

Barenboim's fourth cycle is easily his least successful.  Too slow, too heavy, too cumbersome, too labored, it rarely satisfies for a whole sonata.  Slow movements often work nicely, and Barenboim does display nice dynamic and tonal control.  For some collectors it will make sense to buy it to hear it, though I'd direct a Barenboim Beethoven newbie to the first DG set or the Decca set instead. 




* Julia Spinola writes in the second set of liner notes that this DG set constitutes Barenboim's fifth recorded cycle, though I have not seen the one recorded in the 90s that she references.
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Offline Brian

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Re: Daniel Barenboim Plays Beethoven, Take 4 (?)
« Reply #1 on: December 16, 2020, 07:18:44 AM »
One interesting thing to note - apparently it is a straight-strung "Barenboim Steinway"? That would mean he now has two of his own pianos - the original was made by Chris Maene.

In terms of Old Musicians Showing Their Technical Limitations in Depressing Fashion, this can't be worse than the recent Jos van Immerseel album with 6-8 Beethoven sonatas played in painfully slow practice-room tempos...or can it?  ???

Thanks for taking one for the team.

Offline Todd

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Re: Daniel Barenboim Plays Beethoven, Take 4 (?)
« Reply #2 on: December 16, 2020, 07:20:13 AM »
In terms of Old Musicians Showing Their Technical Limitations in Depressing Fashion, this can't be worse than the recent Jos van Immerseel album with 6-8 Beethoven sonatas played in painfully slow practice-room tempos...or can it?  ???


I do not know, and I will never find out.
The universe is change; life is opinion. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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Handelian

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Re: Daniel Barenboim Plays Beethoven, Take 4 (?)
« Reply #3 on: January 30, 2021, 11:22:31 PM »
I enjoyed some of his playing when he was a young man and so I was looking forward to his repeats of some television programmes he did way back then. I had forgotten what a boring speaker was in a monotone. It has been remarkable how he has kept his piano technique up all these years considering the number of commitments he has, but he is no longer a first rate pianist. A recording of the Brahms piano concerto was an embarrassment