A thoroughly modern performance at the Tate Modern

Sarah KirkupMon 11th April 2011
Daniel Barenboim performing at the Tate Daniel Barenboim performing at the Tate

Daniel Barenboim performs Chopin for free at the Turbine Hall

Being a journalist has its perks. Pre-concert champagne receptions, the best seats in the house, post-concert parties…But on Friday night at the Tate Modern, I found myself wishing I was just one of the crowd. The occasion was Daniel Barenboim’s impromptu Chopin recital (he had only received the invitation a few weeks earlier) marking the 60th anniversary of his first performance, and there was understandably a huge buzz across London – the chance to hear Barenboim playing for free doesn’t come up very often.

While members of the press, alongside friends and acquaintances of Barenboim and those lucky enough to bag a ticket, made their way sedately to the rows of seats set up across the Turbine Hall Bridge, a 1000-strong crowd, clutching blankets, folding seats and bottles of wine, flooded into the Hall below. We would be seeing the maestro perform inches away from us, while the audience beneath us would have to make do with watching the action unfold on a giant screen. 

Being close enough to see Barenboim’s hands caress the keys certainly had its advantages. We on the Bridge were able to witness, in close-up, his effortless technique (even if his wrists did seem to sit high above the keyboard, as my intrigued pianist friend remarked) and engage in repartee with the great musician as he addressed us in between pieces. But, judging from the noise below us, the Hall was where the real atmosphere was, huge cheers erupting as Barenboim made his entrance, and plenty of banter arising after each piece.

The recital began with an exquisite arrangement for soloist and string quintet of the slow movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1. Members of the Staatskapelle Berlin had flown over specially for the occasion, and their contribution was not taken for granted. Pinpoint intonation, pedigree ensemble work and innate musicality, mirrored on the keyboard by Barenboim, amounted to a breathtaking opening to the recital.

There then followed one of several “speeches” by Barenboim, who seemed a natural in front of the mic and was on fine form. Why had he accepted this invitation at such short notice? Because, he confessed, he was “tickled” to be asked to play at such a venue. Music should not be consigned to “an ivory tower” he continued. It was at the heart of life, and as such should be made available everywhere and to everyone. There was nothing groundbreaking in what he said – as my neighbour whispered, “He’s preaching to the converted” – but nevertheless his passion and commitment to music as an art form, and as a way of life, was admirable. And let’s face it, he didn’t have to be there at all. He’s an exceptionally busy man (he revealed that he is currently working on two new opera productions) and, at 69, he perhaps has to be more selective about what he takes on, but he wanted to do this – and it showed.

Following the Piano Concerto, the quintet packed their instruments away and joined the enraptured audience as Barenboim played several solo pieces. The first, the Nocturne in D flat, Op 27 No 2, was exquisitely played. The second, the Minute Waltz, Op 64 No 1, was a request from an increasingly confident and rowdy audience (Barenboim: “I’m not sure what I am supposed to talk to you about”; Member of the audience: “Just play!”). The Minute Waltz could have been a vehicle for virtuoso, “flashy” playing but it wasn’t; instead it was delicately played with, according to my friend, “a beautiful leggiero touch”. Another request resulted in the Waltz in A minor, Op 34 No 2, which, despite the omission of an entire section – memory lapse or a maestro’s perogative? – was beautifully played. To conclude the evening, Barenboim chose to play one of Chopin’s late works, the Barcarolle, Op 60 – for me the highlight of the evening. His understated yet supremely musical playing was a joy to hear. No, the acoustic was not ideal – the Turbine Hall is a cavernous space, and as such some of the music’s detail was lost – but surely this was beside the point? Or was it actually the point? Music doesn’t have to be performed in perfect conditions for it to be experienced and enjoyed. And perhaps there was no more perfect venue for a free recital advocating the universality of music than the Turbine Hall, a space currently dedicated to the work of avant-garde Chinese artist and activitist Ai Weiwei whose whereabouts are still unknown.

As we rose to our feet to applaud this great maestro’s all-too-short recital, the noise from the Turbine Hall was deafening. Barenboim left the stage, embracing members of the audience and looking elated, leaving us wanting more.  Leaving the Turbine Hall Bridge, there were smiling faces as colleagues shook hands and reviewed the performance. Walking through the Turbine Hall to the exit, empty bottles of wine and the occasional forgotten folding chair were reminders of a party-like atmosphere not dissimilar to a Proms-in-the-Park concert. I know where I’ll sit next time…

Sarah Kirkup

Sarah Kirkup is deputy editor of Gramophone. She plays flute and piano, and sings with her local church choir. Sarah is a fan of ballet and contemporary dance, and attends as many productions - particularly at Covent Garden - as she can.

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