A decade ago, Daniel Barenboim performed all the Beethoven piano sonatas in London across a period of barely three weeks. Now in his mid 70s, he’s opted for a far more leisurely approach to the cycle in Berlin. This concert (a repeat of the cycle’s opening performance a couple of days earlier) kicked off a project that is set to run across two seasons, reaching its conclusion in the Beethoven Year of 2020.

Daniel Barenboim plays at the Pierre Boulez Saal © Peter Adamik
Daniel Barenboim plays at the Pierre Boulez Saal
© Peter Adamik

The fact that it’s taking place in the Pierre Boulez Saal necessarily means that it’s also a far more intimate affair. Barenboim plays his own custom-made piano at the heart of Frank Gehry’s “salle modulable”. Extra chairs spill onto the platform, while the lights are left on to allow two-way observation between pianist and audience. As so often in this venue, the instrument was turned around during the interval give a shift a perspective in the second half.

There’s also something intimate about Barenboim’s approach ­– at least much of the time. Kicking off with a quartet of sonatas covering most of Beethoven’s sonata-writing career, he alternated between almost authoritarian brusqueness and melting delicacy, all emphasised by the unusual colour of his piano. Its upper range is beguiling, with a particularly fortepiano-like timbre when the soft pedal is employed, as it often was. The middle and lower ranges, however, could often sound boomy and smudged.

This might, of course, have been down to the player as much as the instrument. There’s no denying that Barenboim’s fingers don’t quite have the strength and authority they once did, and there were occasions where the playing couldn’t quite keep up with interpretations that communicate a rare authority and belief in their own inevitable rightness. We heard performances that seemed to reflect not only well over half-a-century’s familiarity with this music, but everything this great musician has done on the podium in the interim as well.

There was freedom and daring in rhythm and texture, and despite this being Beethoven playing on the grandest rhetorical scale, we were never far away from the sense that this music being played for a circle of friends. It was music-making full of surprises, impulsive and, especially in the “little” G major Op.79, impish and playful. The performance of that work, straight after the interval, was arguably the highlight of the evening: Barenboim teasing out the first movement’s tracery with the utmost delicacy, bringing supreme eloquence to the Andante and, despite some smudges, offering wonderful lightness and humour to the finale.

By contrast, the performance of the “Pathétique” that kicked off the evening was more nervy – in all senses – with sudden shifts in dynamics that occasionally felt a little too abrupt, climaxes and cadences underlined with the thumps of feet or by Barenboim theatrically raising himself off the stool. But as the performance progressed I was increasingly won over. By the time we got to his performance of the strange A flat Sonata from a couple of years later, Barenboim had brought me entirely into his interpretative world – one of generosity and conviction, where themes are lifted up out of the texture as if in a big bear hug. Even the work’s slightly underwhelming Marcia funebre here felt grand and inevitable.

The performance of the A major sonata Op.101 that finished the programme saw Barenboim on visionary form in the first and, especially, third movements. In the finale, though, the technique was pushed too far, the flesh not quite keeping up with what the spirit was willing. Technically one could quibble. But that seems like so much nitpicking in the face of performances of such conviction and affection.

****1