Why Daniel Barenboim should be the next head of the Berlin Phil

Irrespective of his 'peace-making', the Israeli-Argentine is the greatest all-round musician in the world

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

18 April 2015

9:00 AM

Daniel Barenboim is back in town: the South Bank is mounting a ‘Barenboim Project 2015’ in which he’s playing the Schubert piano sonatas and conducting his magnificent Berlin Staatskapelle in Elgar’s Second Symphony and Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, with Martha Argerich as soloist (if she doesn’t cancel yet again, in which case I assume Barenboim will do it himself).

As usual, the arts luvvies are wetting themselves. I remember being at a newspaper morning conference when he was about to play the Beethoven piano concertos at the South Bank. The arts editor — who knew zilch about the respective merits of classical pianists — announced this as if it were the Second Coming. Everyone else made noises of awe and reverence. Soon there were demands from senior executives for tickets to this ‘unique’ event.

I curled my lip. Not because Barenboim isn’t a great pianist (he is) but because, although shamefully ignorant of the arts generally, I’m a classical piano fiend. Why the fuss about Barenboim, when other soloists of the same calibre — Richard Goode, say — wouldn’t have aroused a flicker of interest? Put simply, because Barenboim is a ‘legend’ and the self-effacing American Goode isn’t, though most critics rate his Beethoven sonata cycle ahead of the Argentinian-Israeli maestro’s two sets.

Daniel Barenboim with Martha Argerich (Photo: Getty)

Barenboim’s legendary status partly derives from the fact that he is as important a conductor as he is a pianist. Just as actors yearn to become directors, instrumentalists fancy themselves at the podium. (Singers less so, and judging by Placido Domingo’s ventures into conducting that’s a blessing.)

Usually the results are respectable, but of living pianists only Vladimir Ashkenazy comes close to matching Barenboim’s reputation as a conductor — and he’s stopped playing live recitals because he admits his technique is ropey and he doesn’t want to embarrass himself like certain other unnamed pianists. I’m guessing this was a dig at Maurizio Pollini, who hasn’t got much to say now his fingers have turned from steel to butter. Barenboim also drops plenty of notes these days, as 72-year-olds tend to, but hasn’t lost his magic. And he remains one of the world’s top five conductors, which Ashkenazy never was.

Indeed, his partnership with the Staats-kapelle has won over many critics who felt his previous recordings were frustratingly uneven. Reviewing his 2014 recording of the Elgar Second, Andrew Clements in the Guardian praised the ‘ravishing care’ lavished on its surging themes by the strings, and the slow movement’s ‘massive Wagnerian paragraphs’ — the latter betraying the influence of Furtwängler, Barenboim’s hero and the supreme interpreter of Wagner’s paragraphs (though to the best of my knowledge he never conducted any Elgar, more’s the pity).

But Barenboim’s legend goes beyond simple music-making. With his friend the Palestinian polymath-cum-windbag Edward Said he set up the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which aims to promote Israeli-Palestinian harmony by bringing together young Jewish and Arab musicians. It’s as good (i.e., not quite world-class) as Dudamel’s Simón Bolívar Orchestra, and doesn’t misrepresent itself as full of ghetto kids, as the Venezuelan outfit has been known to do. Barenboim bravely broke the taboo on performing Wagner in Israel; he’s fearless in denouncing Israel’s revenge attacks on Gaza, but not so noisy on the subject of poisonous Islamism. He is the first Jewish Israeli to become an honorary Palestinian citizen.

All of which has liberal audiences throwing their panties at him and earns him the patronage of the BBC/Guardian/Arts Council machine (though surely the Beeb was embarrassed by his incoherent 2006 Reith lectures). The piano is fashionable among the London bien pensants, thanks to the Guardian editor’s celebration of the instrument and his own, ahem, mastery of it. Barenboim, like Brendel, has been well and truly Rusbridgerised.

Which is a shame, because irrespective of his ‘peacemaking’ he is the greatest all-round musician in the world. I’ve been listening to his new Schubert sonatas on DG. To pick just one example, the tarantella finale of D958 is unusually slow, and the texture burnished rather than crisp, but Barenboim uses his celebrated palette of tonal colour to clarify the structure of the movement. There’s drama, too: when pianissimo triplets creep up the keyboard, it’s as if the great opera conductor has ushered a character on to the stage. Thanks to Spotify I was able to switch immediately to his Bayreuth Walküre, and I swear that in the controlled explosion of the Prelude to Act I you could hear the same intelligence at work.

OK, so Furtwängler he ain’t. No one is. But who knows what might have happened if the Berlin Philharmonic hadn’t chosen Rattle instead of Barenboim? Sir Simon is coming back to London in 2017. And bear in mind that Claudio Abbado gave the greatest concerts of his career as he was being eaten away by cancer in his seventies. Surely there’s still time to give the Berlin job to the man who should have got it in the first place.

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  • Hamish Redux

    Not sure about this. His Beethoven cycle at the Proms was a little disappointing — would have preferred Rattle or Elder, if we’re talking local lads, or Haitink (but he’s too old for a new job). On the other hand Dan’s opera conducting, such as the recent Wagner cycle, was much more impressive. So I’d keep him in the opera house rather than the concert hall.

    • Damian Thompson

      Yes, but Rattle’s Beethoven VPO cycle was also disappointing. Was DB playing with W-E Divan orchestra? They’re not remotely in same class as Staatskapelle.

  • Verbatim

    Christian Thielemann will get the gig. Folks have suggested he already has a contract from which he cannot escape, but most conductors have more than one job at a time.

    • Damian Thompson

      Was listening to Thielemann’s Parsifal yesterday. Awesome.

  • IainRMuir

    Many orchestras audition blind these days. A pity that concerts cannot be reviewed in the same way. It might avoid some of the tiresome and unquestioning adulation that seems to be around these days.

    Not remotely practicable, obviously.

    • Damian Thompson

      Yes, good point, but DB cult of personality annoyed lots of critics and his recordings are often judged unusually harshly.

  • James

    Ryuichi Sakamoto is still the greatest classical and all-round musician in my opinion – writing masterpieces in the 20th century that will be remembered forever. As someone who adores classical music it saddens me that you have to go to Austria or Germany to see the best performers because, snobbery in the UK is such that you will never get a ticket for a world-class showing at key venues.

    • Damian Thompson

      A new name to me – thanks for the tip!

      • James

        Merry Christmas Mr Lawerence – surely you know that theme aka ‘Forbidon Colours’ by Ryuichi Sakamoto. I would you also listen to ‘Acceptance end credits’ as well as ‘I want a divorce’ or ‘Rain’ for familiarity.

        • Guest

          I adore this

          • James

            Work of a genius!

  • Barenboim has been dropping plenty of notes for a long time, as I understand it — because the pursuit of conducting greatness and political partisanship (which in his case I disapprove of) and being celebrity-about-planet has long left him not enough time for practice. The fact that he accepted Edward Said for a friend says it all. I wouldn’t let Said end up in my vacuum cleaner, never mind sully my name with his acquaintance. ‘He is the first Jewish Israeli to become an honorary Palestinian citizen.’ Thud. Boo. Stockholm Syndrome, anybody?

    Barenboim’s problem is that he wants music to be more than it is. He wants it to be philosophy. I’m afraid that only philosophy can be philosophy — and political philosophy is the queen of all the sciences. Yet Barenboim isn’t even the page boy: he’s the scullery maid.

    As for Maurizio Pollini, anyone that can play the music I have listed right at this moment (as it happens) on my Disqus profile, with such grand authority and dash, deserves nothing but our eternal gratitude and respect. He certainly has mine! (Oh, and guess who conducted? — Claudio Abbado.)

  • Innit Bruv

    Barenboim is to music what McDonalds is to food, A lot of it about but quality wise…….
    As a pianist he is at best mediocre and his technique pretty deficient in some respects (his voicing of chords, for example, is at times appallingly crude).
    (On the subject of other pianists, Richard Goode’s playing is at times more suited to Scarlatti than to Beethoven and is therefore pretty lightweight).
    “Furtwangler he ain’t”.
    Barenboim’s conducting is full of meaningless gestures which may look good to the untrained eye but serve no musical purpose whatsoever (to be fair, he is by no means the only one, take a look at Dudamel or Rattle for example).
    The musical results are, more often than not, flabby,derivative and lacking in originality.
    That he has such a high profile is more a reflection of the dearth of real, great conducting talent rather than of his own second-tier gifts.
    Had he been born fifty years earlier when the likes of Klemperer, Furtwangler, Toscanini or Erich Kleiber were around he wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near a major orchestra.

    • Guest

      you’re just angry because he’s jewish
      what do you muslims contribute to music?
      oh yeah, sorry, the cries and howling of the people you slaughter…

      • Innit Bruv

        Look, you stupid useless thicko, how many times do I have to say this to people like you?
        I AM NOT A MUSLIM !!!!!!!
        I don’t like Barenboim because I don’t think he’s very good, that’s all.
        Or are you so obtuse that you think that not liking a musician who just happens to be Jewish makes you an anti semite?

  • Slipped Disc
    • Innit Bruv

      Reason no 11: he’s not very interesting to listen to either as pianist or conductor.

  • W. Ymmar

    With all due respect, this whole argumentation is nonsensical, because the Berlin Phil (and they alone) have to decide with whom they want to enter a close partnership for the next years (as it seems unlkely that they’ll ever again issue a life-long contract as they used to do up to Karajan). This partnership will then contain so much more than just impeccable music making. Plus: it’s doubtful that 124 musicians will share just ONE opinion and preference. In over 130 years Berlin Phil has proven to be able to shape a prosperous future quite successfully – based on their own decisions. Maybe we should trust them this time as well, especially since it might be doubted that anyone outside the orchestra should know what the ONE perfect choice would be. By the way, the smartest contribution on this whole made up hysteria on something that is nobody’s business than the Berlin Phil’s is a little YouTube-vid called “Baton Quest”.

  • Peter Bering

    It must be painful even for Mr. Bareboom to be promoted in such a boot-licking manner just because he is considered Jewish.

  • Charles E Flynn

    Here is an article about Barenboim’s involvement in the development of a new type of piano:

    Chris Maene & Daniel Barenboim concert grand