Back in 1954, the legendary German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler described the 11-year-old Daniel Barenboim as ‘a phenomenon; not only his musical but also his technical abilities are staggering’.
Furtwängler expressed the hope that ‘he will be able to fulfil his early promise’. As Barenboim approaches his 75th birthday, it’s safe to say that he has – both as a conductor and as a pianist.
This set – a snip at about £80 – takes us back to the very beginnings of his adult career.
In his 20s, Barenboim was recording all the Beethoven piano sonatas (some at sight) for EMI, and all the Mozart piano concertos, directing them from the keyboard.
A 13-year-old Barenboim (above) rehearsing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1956. In his 20s, Barenboim was recording all the Beethoven piano sonatas (some at sight) for EMI
For Sony (then CBS) he cast his net more widely, and primarily features as a conductor, with exceptional performances of surprising things such as the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony from 1971, and Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto (with John Williams) from 1974.
This box happily concludes with a brilliant 2014 New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna, also on a two-and-a-half-hour DVD.
There is some Mozart here; violin concertos with one of his mentors, Isaac Stern, and his lifelong friend Pinchas Zukerman.
For EMI the 24-year-old Barenboim recorded a well-remembered set of Beethoven piano concertos with the 82-year-old Otto Klemperer at the helm. While here, the 33-year-old Barenboim partners the then 88-year-old pianist Arthur Rubinstein, in a 1975, not-so-well-remembered Beethoven cycle, which includes an especially fine account of the Fourth.
What will surely intrigue most collectors are the eight Elgar albums Barenboim recorded in his early 30s, having fallen for the composer, under the influence of his then-wife, the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and the renowned Elgar conductor Sir John Barbirolli.
Daniel Barenboim: A Retrospective out now. This box happily concludes with a brilliant 2014 New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna, also on a two-and-a-half-hour DVD
Barenboim was even prepared to give blood for Elgar. I attended the live performance that preceded the very fine 1976 recording of the Violin Concerto included here, also with Zukerman.
Barenboim was so carried away at one point that he brought his left hand crashing down on the conducting stand and blood spurted everywhere. But in true showbiz tradition, Barenboim carried on.
He has recently returned to Elgar, with Berlin recordings of the two symphonies. These may show more maturity but I still love his earlier Elgar efforts. You may be able to read the original LP sleeve notes containing a host of patronising observations from American critics. This goes to show what an extraordinary decision it was for the young Barenboim to take up with such enthusiasm a composer whose reputation was then in the doldrums.
A fascinating set, and a real tribute to one of the finest and most versatile musicians of our time.
Prom 60: Oslo Philharmonic conducted by Vasily Petrenko
Royal Albert Hall, London
There was some surprise four years ago when Vasily Petrenko, chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, also took on the Oslo Philharmonic. The Norwegian orchestra had made waves under the inspiring leadership of Mariss Jansons, since when it faded badly. What could Petrenko to do to match Jansons?
On the evidence of this enthusiastically received Russian Prom, quite a lot. The orchestra played silkily through the opener, Stravinsky’s 1919 reworking of music from The Firebird, with fine wind solos and an excellent solo horn in the finale. Jansons would not have been embarrassed by the quality of the orchestra’s response to Petrenko’s clear, unfussy beat.
Things got even better with Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto, dazzlingly well played by the Norwegian virtuoso Leif Ove Andsnes. Living in the US and depressed by the way his music was received, Rachmaninov agreed to make hacking cuts, which surprisingly remain. This mutilated piece also isn’t helped by the big tune in the slow movement resembling that old music-hall favourite Two Lovely Black Eyes!
The concert concluded with arguably Shostakovich’s weakest symphony: No 12 ‘The Year 1917’. Petrenko is a Shostakovich specialist and gave the piece an appropriately brazen performance, showing off the virtuosity of his orchestra. But the empty rhetoric, widely condemned at its premiere in 1961, sounds even more bombastic today.