Notes and Editorial Reviews
Années de pèlerinage:
Sonata in b.
Rigoletto Paraphrase. Trovatore Miserere. Aida Sacred Dance and Final Duet.
Entrance of the Guests. Spinning Song. Isolde’s Liebestod
Daniel Barenboim (pn)
class="ARIAL12"> EUROARTS 2066658 (2 DVDs: 186:00)
This release is a compilation of four or possibly five discrete programs filmed in 1985 at various locations in Bayreuth. Produced by Bavarian Radio in cooperation with Metropolian Munich, they were presumably intended for broadcast during 1986, the centennial of Liszt’s death. The Wagner and Verdi transcriptions, filmed in two spaces in the Markgräfliches Opernhaus, and the B-Minor Sonata, filmed at the Villa Wahnfried, were both directed by Klaas Rusbicus. The complete first book of
Années de pèlerinage
and four pieces from Book 2 were shot at the Neues Schloss in Bayreuth and directed by Axel Conti. Though not filmed on the cheap—four cameras are listed in each of the credit rolls—the style of these films is conservative, if not downright old-fashioned, even by the standards of 27 years ago. Backgrounds lit with oval pools, sets brightened for
passages or lights lowered for the quiet ones, and relatively static camera angles seem so retro as to recall the films made around 1950 of Artur Rubinstein in his Hollywood home. Absence of fancy camerawork, of course, also means fewer distractions in observing Daniel Barenboim’s intensely focused, unmannered playing. (Viewers should not expect, by the way, to see the Sonata played on Wagner’s 1876 New York Steinway in the Grand Salon of Villa Wahnfried, where presumably the large windows presented problems in terms of lighting. I don’t recognize the room of the Wagner home where it was shot. Throughout the film, Barenboim uses the same apparently new Hamburg Steinway.) Sound quality is generally good and if the picture quality is a bit grainy, it is consistent with the then-current technology. Booklet notes by Anthony Short steer a meandering course through the irrelevant and the misleading, when not asserting factual inaccuracies.
The performances themselves tellingly reveal Barenboim’s conductorial instincts and sensitivities. His sure sense of pacing and fine feeling for the singing line, conforming always to what is achievable by human breath, are shown off to great advantage in the operatic paraphrases. No one I can think of plays the
Paraphrase better than he. Part of his success is that the rise and fall of the individual voices, even the very text of “Bella figlia dell’amore” seem, in pianistic terms, almost palpable. Liszt’s imaginative translation of the
incorporating Verdi’s rich orchestral colors, tolling bells, and the choral chants punctuated by the passionate outpourings of Leonora and Manrico—is rendered here with exemplary clarity. The same feel for orchestral sonority animates and illumines the bustle of
Entrance of the Guests into the Wartburg.
Expertly paced and atmospheric, the
is imbued with a singularity of vision and an intimacy rarely encountered in the opera house.
If the opera paraphrases represent the enhanced perspective that a concurrent exercise of conducting and piano playing can produce, some of the other performances—the B-Minor Sonata, for example—demonstrate what it cannot. Barenboim’s intellectual grasp notwithstanding, this B-Minor Sonata never quite gels into a cohesive whole. The lasting impression is of a reading more episodic than integrated, and of an artwork held at arm’s length rather than inhabited. Barenboim’s mellifluous soft sounds, particularly his subtle
, are exquisitely beautiful. However, since he sits so unusually high at the instrument, with elbows some inches above the keyboard, his
can sound shallow. Hence, at the loudest end of the dynamic spectrum, options of volume and mass are truncated. Amid superb phrasing—in the fugue, for instance, the voices are shaped as deftly as anyone could desire—there are moments of discomfort. Octave passages (never Barenboim’s strong suit) seem particularly precarious, and he has a curious tendency to slap at the culminating peaks of bravura runs, apparently undisturbed by harmonic inaccuracies created at such climactic moments. These are not “live performance” films; though shot on location, no audience was present. Multiple takes of individual works are evident (we see, for example, close-ups of Barenboim’s face bathed in perspiration and, only a few measures later, the same angle close-up shows him cool as a cucumber). Given these circumstances, release of a performance with so high a percentage of wrong notes—whether in 2012 or 1985—runs counter to prevailing industry norms.
Further examination of these interpretations, which are after all nearly three decades old, seems more like archeology than music journalism. It may be more germane to step back and briefly reflect on Barenboim’s contributions to Liszt playing through his recordings. Since the days of Hans von Bülow and Charles Hallé, I suspect few musicians have pursued the bifurcated career of a conductor-pianist with greater ambition or tenacity than Barenboim. It is a career that combines two not necessarily complementary callings. In certain circumstances, distinct skill sets can coexist happily in a symbiosis of mutual enrichment. In others, because of the number of hours in a day if nothing else, two such demanding fields of musical endeavor yield artistic results of uniform quality only with difficulty. Moreover, nowadays technical standards of both professions are routinely at a much higher level than they were during Bülow’s and Hallé’s day in the late 19th century. Through most of his career Barenboim has held top-level, highly lucrative conducting jobs. The demands of those jobs would obviously preclude any decision, should he have been so inclined, to abandon the podium for, say, a year’s sabbatical in order to focus on an instrumental career. Barenboim has attempted what Rachmaninoff, another great conductor, simply refused to do, and what other piano-playing conductors such as Szell, Solti, Bernstein, and Levine have done only rarely and in a highly circumscribed repertoire.
There is no question that Barenboim is drawn to Liszt. One need only think of his 1979 recording of the Swiss
(DG 415670); the 1986 Wagner transcriptions (DG 415957); his
symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic (originally on Teldec, now reissued by Warner Classics and including piano works); the 2007 La Scala Liszt recital, reprising the Italianate repertoire of this release, plus
St. Francois d’Assise: La Predication aux oixeaux
(CD, Warner Classics 407228; DVD, Euroarts 2056748); and, just last year, the two canonic concertos, with Boulez and the Berlin Staatskapelle (DG 1606892). Generally speaking, I think it fair to say that, when Barenboim plays Liszt, he does not hold himself to the same high standard as when he plays Beethoven. The ideas are certainly on a level that one would expect from a musician of Barenboim’s stature. The execution, unfortunately, lags significantly behind.
Meanwhile, where should the collector interested in this repertoire turn? Cinematographically, musically, and pianistically, the most interesting video performances of the first two books of
Années de pèlerinage
are those of Alfred Brendel, in a film by Humphrey Burton. Brendel’s commentary, along with images from Ernst Burger’s
Franz Liszt: A Chronicle of His Life in Pictures and Documents,
provide historical context. Produced in 1986, this visually stunning film was reissued on DVD by DG in 2006.
FANFARE: Patrick Rucker
Verdi Opera Transcriptions
Wagner Opera Transcriptions
Piano Sonata in B minor, S178/R21
Années de pèlerinage, 1st year, Switzerland, S160/R10
Années de pèlerinage, 2nd year, Italy, S161/R10b
Daniel Barenboim, piano
Recorded at the Haus Wahnfried, Bayreuth, 1985 (Piano Sonata), at the Neues Scholss Bayreuth, 1985 (Années de pèlerinage), and at the Markgäfliches Opernhaus, Bayreuth, 1985 (Wagner and Verdi Transcriptions)
Picture format: NTSC 4:3
Sound format: PCM Stereo
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Running time: 186 mins
No. of DVDs: 2
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