A Daniel come to judgment ARTS
One of the most prominent characteristics of our age is its worship of the image of vitality. 1 say 'image,' because the essence of this cult is its homage not so much to the ordered vitality of nature as to the more feverish products of nervous energy—the sort of ner- vous energy associated with the glare of ,the mass media, much of modern art and the cult of youth and youthful heroes. Of course, the nature of nervous energy is that it may burn for a while very brightly, unnaturally brightly —but that in the end, feeding only on itself, it burns itself up. And though the conse- quences of this in the lighter parts of life, the entertainment world in particular, may be sad enough, where they touch the more serious arts or politics, their disintegrative effect is alto- gether more tragic.
A few years ago, the English musical scene was given a considerable lift by the arrival from various parts of the world of a group of extremely gifted young pianists: Fou Ts'ong from China, Vladimir Ashkenazy from Russia. Stephen Bishop from America and, youngest of all, Daniel Barenboim, who was born in Argentina in 1942.
It soon became apparent that, regardless of the individual excellences of the others, there was in the aura of promise surrounding Baren- boim something special. There was his am- bition in taking on full-scale careers as both performer and conductor, often at the same time. There was the magnetism of his per- sonal presence—skipping on to the stage with all the assurance of a young Beethoven—his dark, intense good looks. Above all, there was the vitality singing out from everything he did, tempered irresistibly in one so young by a gravity which seemed to promise that the vi- tality, like his talent, was rooted and genuine.
I have two particular memories of him at that time. The first was an appearance on tele- vision in a series in which various pianists talked about a piece before performing it. The only other pianist I saw, like Harold Wilson, could talk of nothing ultimately beyond its relation to himself: 'I first played this con- certo at the age of six.' Barenboim talked solely of Mozart, of his religion and philo- sophy, and of the way his music can only be fully understood as their expression.
My second memory is of a concert with the Royal Philharmonic early in 1967. It was one of those concerts such as only happen once or twice a year, when the audience is electrified by the sense that they are present at something quite out of the ordinary. The special character of the occasion derived largely from the presence, playing a Haydn cello con- certo, of Jacqueline Du Prd, who a month or two later was to become Mrs Barenboim. The sparks flying between them lifted the whole evening on to a superhuman level, and its climax was a performance of Mozart's D Minor concerto which left the audience almost weak with its energy.
Yet I remember at the same time having an acute sense of foreboding—that it was all going too well, like a hectic spring so green that it is almost painful. In the two years after that, I saw Barenboim only once. During that time, his public cult has flowered. His energy has been unceasing: a Beethoven sonata cycle here, a Mozart concerto cycle there. Through a stream of recordings, television appearances, magazine profiles, he has been transformed into a celebrity far beyond the regular musical world. And even there, his triumphant pro- gress has reached the point where sober re- viewers can compare him favourably with the greatest of recent masters, Serkin, Backhaus, Schnabel.
Last week, at the Festival Hall, I heard him again. I prepared myself by listening to his latest recording, Mozart's piano concerto in C major K.467, which has been rapturously acclaimed as not only the finest recording of the piece, but as his own best performance to date. My own favoured version of this work has long been that of Geza Anda for Deutsche Grammophon. Anda's strength is his .perfect discipline, so that everything in the work coheres, every detail is brought out. His first movement glows with majestic brilliance, solid through his exquisite timing and control, and yet, for that very reason, light and imbued with a wholly natural energy. Barenboim's perfor- mance, on the other hand, was to me a revela- tion of an altogether unhappier kind: my first shock was the absence of that fire which once shone so brightly in all he touched. In fact, the one thing which stands out at every point in this recording is its tiredness—the tiredness of nervous energy which has been stretched just too far, of pauses lingered on for just that fraction too long so that they become mere sentimental tricks, a tiredness which shows not just in his slower tempo (for that might be a matter of interpretation) but in the way that tempo betrays a slackness so that the music no longer quite coheres.
The opening of the second movement with Daniel Barenboim its muted strings is a particular challenge to any interpreter, since without perfect tirnipo it topples over into heavyhandedness or slu,h, where Anda is supreme, giving it such hot Gress of touch and gentle momentum t the music floats magically on the air, and ripples of his piano entry come in just ri Barenboim again takes it at Sisyphean pa and at his own entry it seems for a morne as if he is about to stop altogether.
These sad reflections were confirmed by la week's concert. The change in Barenboim ' two years was marked. No longer did he trip on to the platform like a young Beethove And although there are many worse perfor. mances each year of the Mozart concertos took on, for the very reason of what nigh have been, they left the audience, I felt, slightly ill at ease. Corruptio optimi pessima. The inner fire of nature was gone, and it was perhaps revealing that the work which came off best was Bartok's Divertimento, a restless, shallow piece which was born of nervous energy and requires little more to re-create it.
The Barenboim myth has at last become separate from the reality. His time of `inner turmoil and anxiety has come: one prays that, with so fine a gift, the struggle may be sue. cessful, reaching the depth and humility that "must come from real acquaintance with the works of the great masters and the 'reality which lies behind them.
Otherwise, as with so many other musician of the present day, the alternative is too sad to contemplate:- of another member of the musical circus, honoured and feted by the mass media, considered by the non-musical public a great musician, but ultimately denied any more fundamental respect.