Barenboim has prodigious energy and prodigal gifts, but for decades he has been a divider, not a uniter. Some are made uncomfortable by the image of an ambitious careerist who wants to run everything in sight, others by his attempts to be the universal musician, playing and conducting any score. there is also his idiosyncratic combination of advanced modernism (he has strongly championed the Second Viennese School and contemporary composers like Rihm) and nostalgic conservatism (for years he has been looked at askance as a faux Furtwangler). Even where he stands on solid ground, as a piano virtuoso who began as a child prodigy, Barenboim seems to attract animosity among reviewers.
What of his Chopin, then? If we forget everything else associated with Barenboim's career, we should be able to listen to this live recital from Warsaw simply for what it is. One immediately notices the vivid, forward sound and the brilliant instrument that Barenboim plays; in terms of glitter, this is an up to date production. But at the same time the first item, the Fantasie in F minor, is approached almost brusquely, with impatient pacing and a lack of charm. It takes a moment to settle into Barenboims style, which emphasizes attack, propulsion, and impact over elegance or intimacy. When he wants to, the pianist can linger and reflect upon what the music is about, which is to the good, but here he pauses and reflects very little.
Before getting to the "Funeral March" Sonata that is the main work, let me consider the rest, a miscellany drawn from Chopin's waltzes, polonaises, and nocturnes. Barenboim plays them more form the outside than the inside. You get the impression of great confidence and musical assurance -- no mean things. The Nocturne in D flat, Op. 27 no. 2, has a strong contour; the pianist isn't just maundering through. The three waltzes are done on a large scale, an approach I like, and with a good deal of thoughtful phrasing. Less successful is the "Heroic" Polonaise Op. 53, which Barenboim tries to dramatize with too much stop-and-go, throwing away its straightforward momentum.
Anyone who loves Chopin already has a strong sense memory of how each work should go, and therefore much depends upon connecting with a performer's musical instincts in small and subtle ways. I realize, for example, that my aversion to Rubinstein and love of Pollini would be reversed for countless other listeners. When Barenboim fusses his way through the Berceuse Op. 57, I can admire his facility without being moved or interested. Remembering how Horowitz set the Barcarolle Op. 60 on fire, moving from a gentle serenade to tempestuous outbursts, I can't get very involved in Barenboim's reading, which is skillful, pleasant, but without ambition.
Which brings us to the sonata. Barenboim knows the lineage of keyboard giants who have recorded it, and no doubt he considers himself to be their direct heir. As a result, he does a kind of charismatic scramble in the first movement reminiscent of Horowitz, but that's a perilous course, just as perilous as imitating Furtwangler on the podium. Horowitz justified his eccentricities through an unmatched ability to seize an audience by the throat and never let go -- he aimed to dazzle, mesmerize, and eventually overwhelm the listener. Barenboim can't go there, so he tends to sound chaotic and reckless. At least nothing is ordinary. The Scherzo, once you get past the arbitrary tinkering, is sparkling and alive. "alive" is the highest compliment I can pay to the whole program, in fact. Unlike Barenboim's Chopin in the studio, which can feel embalmed, he is reaching out to his audience here.
And I imagine he keeps in mind that he is playing for Poles, to whom Chopin is a religious figure. Perhaps that is how Barenboim, against the odds, turns in a genuinely moving and mature funeral march. It shows no sign of being rote. His touch is strong and decisive; the pulse is vital. As for the will o' the wisp finale, I've heard it done more mysteriously as well as more magically, but you remain aware that a major pianist is delivering it. that's true from beginning to end on this CD, which despite my criticisms, emerges as one of Barenboim's best live outings on disc.
Fantasia in F minor, Op. 49
Nocturne No. 8 in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 'Marche funèbre'
Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60
Waltz No. 4 in F major 'Grande Valse Brillante', Op. 34 No. 3
Waltz No. 3 in A minor 'Grande Valse Brillante', Op. 34 No. 2
Waltz No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2
Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57
Polonaise No. 6 in A flat major, Op. 53 'Héroïque'
Waltz No. 6 in D flat major, Op. 64 No. 1 'Minute Waltz'