‘I don’t know whether you believe me or not but I am not one to look back. I am where I am.’ Daniel Barenboim is speaking in London, the evening before a rare solo appearance (in the Royal Festival Hall) as part of his 60th birthday celebrations. Though in no mood for reflecting on the past, it does seem that in giving this series of recitals he is returning to his first love. The previous evening, his concert in Amsterdam had ended with a standing ovation and 11 encores. Didn’t a reception like that make him yearn to return to the life of a soloist? ‘The conductor is the only musician who does not have contact with anything that can produce sound. And I absolutely feel the need for the physical contact with sound. What I have learnt through conducting the repertoire – Bruckner, Wagner operas, Elektra, Wozzeck – is a new way of looking at sound, what you can do with it and what it can do to you. ‘Believe me, when you have conducted 10 Wagner operas in chronological order, as I did, and then you sit down to play something on the piano – a Mozart sonata or whatever – you look at it differently.’
When he took over as director of the Staatsoper in Berlin in 1992, on top of work with the Chicago Symphony, he knew that he would be able to play even less than he had done in the past. ‘After these 10 years, I decided I would have a sabbatical from the State Opera. That’s what I’m doing now. I don’t conduct another opera until next spring.’
So what does the future hold for a man who, under normal standards, would qualify for his pension in five years’ time? Between now and 2006 are four operas he has never previously conducted – Moses und Aaron, Carmen, Boris Godunov and The Queen of Spades. ‘There is a score I have loved for many years and never had a chance to conduct till last year – The Dream of Gerontius. In Chicago. Now I want to go back to the Elgar symphonies. In the late ’70s I did many first performances, especially of the Second, in Berlin, Philadelphia, Chicago. I want to do those again.’
It seems the more Barenboim has done an important work like Tristan und Isolde (he has conducted every performance of Tristan in Bayreuth since 1981, plus others in Berlin) the more he wants to do it again. ‘There are pieces that I have done all my life and will continue to do as long as I have the energy to do them – the Mozart/da Ponte operas, the Beethoven sonatas, some of the Wagner operas, Boulez’s Notations, Debussy’s Préludes. Then there are other pieces which I did maybe three or four times, and I had had enough. It’s like friends. Some are for life and you want to be with them for ever. There are others you meet who are very interesting two or three times, and that’s it. It’s a personal thing. There are certain occasions, pieces, collaborations you want to return to.’
When Barenboim started out, they were still recording 78s (though he did not make his first disc until 1954). An only child, he gave his first official concert in Buenos Aires when he was seven and made his official débuts in Vienna and Rome in 1952. By the age of 12 he was able to play between 20 and 30 concertos. His only teacher was his father. ‘He had a complete philosophy of music. Things like “you never repeat anything mechanically”. When a phrase comes twice, you always have to find something different to say in it without going against the music: “the unrepeatability of music”. The sound becomes new every time you play something. This was his main contribution and I must say that in the basic things he taught me I have not changed at all.’
As Barenboim was growing up, his idols were those he met, worked with and learnt from – Adolf Busch, Rubinstein, Furtwängler, Stokowski, Nadia Boulanger. ‘I started so young. This is the advantage of the child prodigy. All my friends of my generation started at a normal age, in their twenties. I already had 13 years of playing with people, most of whom were dead by then! When I first came to Europe, I met people who had known Brahms. How many people of my age can tell you that?’ A rare look back by someone who seems already to have packed two full lifetimes into his 60 years.