Gramophone Lifetime Achievement Award 2022
When, I occasionally wonder, does the lifetime of a performing artist begin and when the achievement? The reference books tell us that Daniel Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires on November 15, 1942, though such is a foetus’s ability to hear by the 45th day after conception this only child of Russian-Jewish piano-teaching parents was probably getting a feel for his future repertoire long before the natal day itself. Or so Barenboim insisted in the second of his BBC Reith Lectures, ‘The Neglected Sense’, in 2006.
As for the onset of achievement, I’d suggest the year 1967: an annus mirabilis for an already astonishingly complete pianist and a partly fledged conductor en route to greater things.
The young Barenboim was a keyboard prodigy. Close friends of his father – including pianist Claudio Arrau, whom Barenboim looked on with awe both as a man and as a musician – recognised this, as did Wilhelm Furtwängler, who auditioned the 11-year-old in Salzburg in 1954. There’s evidence, too, from early recordings. Not an overambitious teenage disc of Beethoven’s Waldstein and Op 111 sonatas, which earned Barenboim a schoolmasterly ticking off from New York critic Harold C. Schonberg, but a pair of mixed-repertoire seven-inch Philips discs, handsomely advertised in Gramophone in January 1956 and further noticed there the following month.
In 1952 the family emigrated to Israel with little money and uncertain prospects, other than those afforded by bringing Daniel to Europe to develop what was already intended to be a multifaceted career. Dazzling though the boy’s keyboard skills were, a consensus had formed that he was as much a conductor-in-waiting as a pianist-in-the-making. Was this why his father had encouraged him to play the piano with an orchestral sound in mind? En route to Tel Aviv, he was invited to visit Salzburg to attend the conducting class of another family friend, the Russian-born conductor and composer Igor Markevitch.
Barenboim’s conducting career began in earnest 1965 when the English Chamber Orchestra invited him to direct a number of concerts and broadcast performances both here and abroad. The results were gratifying. In January 1967, a letter appeared in Gramophone from a Lt Col Newman commending the ‘precision, elegance and strength’ of a broadcast of a Haydn symphony given by Barenboim and the orchestra. More importantly, the professionals were taking notice. ‘He’s wasting his time playing the piano,’ announced Hugh Bean, the vastly experienced leader of a number of top London orchestras. ‘He’s a born conductor with a gift of communication only the great ones have.’
Barenboim the pianist had been appearing with British orchestras since his London debut under the direction of Josef Krips in 1956. His greatest joy was appearing with Sir John Barbirolli’s Hallé in Manchester. Having access to the Hallé’s, and Barbirolli’s, parts and markings was a privilege in itself. ‘It was there that I learned to learn.’
After one cellist-musician, Barbirolli, came another, Jacqueline du Pré, whom Barenboim met in December 1966 and married the following June in Israel, where they’d been playing for Israeli troops as war with Egypt loomed. The war was famously brief (over in six days, in the wake of which the pair took the chance to marry), though, as Barenboim’s career continues to remind us, the fallout from it remains unresolved even now.
In 1966 he signed an exclusive contract with EMI. The contract ceased to be exclusive in 1972, as Barenboim, now a cigar-smoking apprentice tycoon, began giving record companies the runaround. That said, during a 10-year period he made around a hundred records for EMI in a hitherto unprecedented set of musical genres: piano repertory, orchestral and choral music, song accompaniment – even opera, where he met his musical Dunkirk in Edinburgh in 1973 and 1974 with an ill-judged attempt at an opera he’d heard Furtwängler conduct in Salzburg in 1954: arguably the most difficult of all the great classic music dramas, Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
In all this, it should be added, he was joined by a host of favoured friends, most notably Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Janet Baker, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and du Pré herself.
Barenboim’s recorded output in 1967 alone was prodigious: a raft of Beethoven sonata and concerto recordings, two Brahms concertos with Barbirolli, two Bartók concertos with Pierre Boulez, orchestral music by Mozart, Wagner and Schoenberg, and two discs of Brahms chamber music with du Pré and clarinettist Gervase de Peyer. It was an output unimaginable to anyone other than Barenboim, with his seemingly inexhaustible energy, fabled memory and uncanny ability to perform more or less simultaneously a multiplicity of musical tasks.
There were those who said that he made far too many recordings. Perhaps he did, but that’s because he was no ordinary recording artist, something he made clear in his introduction to Music Makers on Record, the 1986 memoir of his first and finest long-term recording producer, EMI’s Suvi Raj Grubb. For Barenboim, a recording has never been more than a snapshot in time: ‘I play for records as I do in concerts.’ He has never been anti-gramophone: ‘A gramophone record, for all its inadequacies, carries a performance to thousands of music lovers who would otherwise never have the opportunity to hear that particular interpretation.’ But he has never been a true believer either.
His first disc with Grubb was of the three most popular ‘named’ Beethoven sonatas. It was released in March 1967 even as Barenboim, already box-office gold, was launching a cycle of the sonatas in London’s newly opened Queen Elizabeth Hall. Interviews were given, including one to Records and Recording’s Carolyn Wilson which sent EMI bosses into a tailspin. More or less off the cuff, Grubb announced that recordings of all 32 sonatas would be available from Barenboim in time for the 1970 Beethoven bicentenary.
For EMI, Beethoven meant Artur Schnabel, whose pre-war recordings remained in the catalogue as Great Recordings of the Century. ‘Who is this upstart?’ the company bean counters demanded to know. And how many copies of a disc devoted to, say, the three Op 10 sonatas did Grubb imagine would be sold? In fact, 9000 copies were sold. In the brave new world of Sixties Britain, music-making as rooted and alive as this was just the ticket. I reviewed most of the discs during my debut years with Records and Recording, and though, like a number of reviewers elsewhere, I found some of the results interpretively uneven (more so than was the case with a less well-recorded series on Vox/Turnabout by another emerging name, Alfred Brendel), there was no denying their pedigree and their power.
It was, however, the 1967 concerto recordings Barenboim made with the 82-year-old Otto Klemperer which were the real revelation. It was an inspired pairing in which distinctive styles of music-making confronted one another yet were joyously and often movingly linked in what appeared to be (and to some extent were) improvised acts of live music-making.
The first collaboration came in March 1967 with a superb account of Mozart’s epic C major Concerto K503. Clearly thrilled by the experiment, Klemperer now asked to record the five Beethoven concertos with Barenboim. These were the only works in the canon that this greatest of living Beethoven conductors had not previously recorded. Finally, the time seemed ripe.
As a child, Barenboim had preferred Beethoven to Mozart, despite his grandmother’s disapproval (‘Beethoven, pfui!’) and the smallness of his hands, something even Klemperer wondered at. For Barenboim this was not a problem; it merely reinforced his belief that the physical effort of music-making is an integral part of musical expression. And here I’m reminded of something Bryce Morrison wrote about Barenboim’s 2011 Deutsche Grammophon recording of the two Liszt piano concertos with Boulez and the Berlin Staatskapelle. ‘Again you sense an artist for whom there are no short cuts in that always perilous and elusive journey to musical truth.’ It was the same with those gamesome yet profound 1967 Beethoven concerto recordings. More than 50 years on, it’s a set I continue to return to with anticipation and leave with gratitude.
There’s a sense in which Barenboim needed Klemperer at that point in his career. It’s been said that his conducting was influenced, more than is usually the case, by conductors he had identified with in his pre-teen and teenage years. Here Furtwängler – whose final Salzburg concert, an all-Beethoven programme, was heard live by the 11-year-old Barenboim in August 1954 – was key. No one in my experience has better understood, or better expressed in print, the essentials of the Furtwängler style than Barenboim. Yet absorbing another person’s style and making it your own is easier for a solo pianist than it is for a conductor, whose power over an instrument that’s not one’s own is far less readily achieved.
Leading positions with major orchestras were in short supply in the early 1970s for someone of Barenboim’s age and experience. The financial backers of a plan to create a new super orchestra by merging the London Philharmonic Orchestra with the now troubled New Philharmonia favoured Barenboim as its chief conductor. But the project was opposed by the players and dropped completely when, on Herbert von Karajan’s advice, former Philharmonia boss Walter Legge proposed Barenboim’s slightly older contemporary Riccardo Muti as the answer to the orchestra’s problems.
Barenboim’s chance came three years later, in 1975, when the fledgling Orchestre de Paris appointed him as chief conductor, a position he held with distinction for 14 years, establishing a fully functioning chorus and making a raft of recordings, one of which – an eccentrically paced performance of Ravel’s Boléro – enjoyed the curious distinction of becoming a best seller in the Dutch Top 40.
In 1978, Bayreuth came calling. Barenboim had long made it known that whatever misgivings one might have about Wagner the man, neither the music nor the texts with which it is symbiotically linked pose any such problems. He made his Bayreuth debut conducting Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1981 staging of Tristan und Isolde, said by Wolfgang Wagner to be the most expensive production in the festival’s history. Some British critics missed the long paragraphs and sweeping phrasing to which Reginald Goodall had accustomed them. But Wolfgang Wagner found Barenboim deeply sympathetic both to Wagner’s music and to the old Bayreuth ways of communal working.
And his Wagner went on growing. By the time Teldec came to record his 1988 Harry Kupfer Ring for DVD in 1991-92, the reading had become, in the words of one seasoned observer, a ‘seamless epic charge’, the conducting ‘spacious, hugely energetic, and dramatic without being manic’.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of change as dramatic as anything in The Ring. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union’s subsequent collapse, coinciding as they did with the deaths of Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti’s partial retirement and early signs that the golden age of costly studio recording was drawing to a close, opened up for Barenboim possibilities more interesting than anything he, or anyone else at the time, can have imagined.
A newly reunited Berlin was set to enjoy the kind of prestige it had experienced orchestrally and operatically during the years of the Weimar Republic – not because of the fabled Berlin Philharmonic (something of a bit player in the 1920s and early 1930s) but because of the musical life that radiated out from the Berlin State Opera and its marvellous concert orchestra, the Berlin Staatskapelle, both of which Barenboim was now chosen to command. Less brilliant, perhaps, than the best modern orchestras (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for instance, which Barenboim had also recently inherited) but with roots in soil that the old masters – Klemperer, Furtwängler, Bruno Walter – had once tilled, the Staatskapelle had about it the feel of a valued antique. ‘More like a Hamburg Steinway than an American one’ was how Barenboim put it. ‘Less attack, more sustaining power.’
Showcase projects were an acclaimed Ring cycle (brought to the BBC Proms in 2013) and the Beethoven symphonies realised in a way designed to remind us that this music can live, move and have its being in ways others than those prescribed by the high-speed, harmony-light aestheticians of the period-instrument tendency. Barenboim has long stood his ground on such matters. The idea that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra should be discouraged from playing Bach irked him greatly. ‘I don’t want a ghetto for contemporary music, just as I don’t want a ghetto for the Baroque,’ he remarked at the opening of the Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin’s small new concert hall in the round, in 2017. ‘I don’t like ghettos. I’m Jewish; it’s not my thing.’
Which brings us back to 1967 and the unresolved Middle Eastern crisis that has preoccupied Barenboim for most of his adult life. His greatest contribution here is, of course, the founding in 1999 with his friend Edward Said of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – an ensemble that draws on musicians from Egypt and Israel, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Spain – and its offshoot the Berlin-based Barenboim-Said Akademie, which opened in 2015.
As Barenboim explained in the 2006 Reith Lectures, the orchestra was not created as a political vehicle. Its creation was nothing more than an invitation to listen: ‘sensitive talking … painful listening’, and the dignity that a shared passion for music and music-making can bring.
Not that things are getting easier in a world where civilised discourse is threatened on every side by the tyranny of groupthink and the forest of rules that stifle debate and proscribe individual thought. Avoiding debate and devaluing conversation is something that music – a Haydn quartet, for instance – tells us is neither a natural state nor a desirable one.
Barenboim has been a longstanding proponent of what he calls active listening. We live in a world of aural clutter: background music everywhere, and musically ignorant advertisers, such as the company he cited in the Reith Lectures, which seemed unaware that the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem might not be the best thing with which to promote a newer, cleaner lavatory.
Barenboim is also troubled by a world that has become overwhelmingly visual. ‘I saw your concert,’ a fan had informed Alfred Brendel, who posed the last of the audience questions at the end of the second Reith Lecture in Chicago. ‘Might we change that usage?’ was Brendel’s question. ‘And can we hope that some of the people who are coming to our concert tonight might listen to – and even possibly hear – what we are doing?’
Barenboim is a realist. He is well aware that music – serious music, as we must unhelpfully call it – has long been losing authority within Western culture, not least because music education, other than that provided by specialist academies, has been in continual decline these past 40 years.
But we mustn’t end negatively our record of a life that has itself been such a wellspring of positivity. ‘The impact of this young and resilient mind on our appreciation of the classical repertory is likely to be considerable,’ wrote Roger Wimbush in Gramophone’s ‘Here and There’ column in March 1967. As journalistic predictions go, that must rank as one of the best. Richard Osborne
Gramophone Awards 2022 – The Winners
Select an Award-winner below to read full reviews of each of the winning albums and expert insights from our writers.
- Print Edition
Gramophone Digital Club
- Digital Edition
- Digital Archive
- Reviews Database
- Events & Offers
- Print Edition
- Digital Edition
- Digital Archive
- Reviews Database
- Events & Offers
- Reviews Database
Gramophone Digital Edition
- Digital Edition
- Digital Archive
If you are a library, university or other organisation that would be interested in an institutional subscription to Gramophone please click here for further information.