Barenboim Plays Chopin

2011

The Warsaw Recital

Philosophy of Emotion  

Music, for Daniel Barenboim, has always been an art without beginning or end. To him, it emerges from nothingness and ends in nothingness. It is the time during which sound interrupts silence. Or is it the other way around: silence interrupts sound? Music, for Barenboim, is an art of perpetual dialectics, of contradiction and resolution. It is in music that sensuality and feeling seek form. True art, for him, emerges only from the proper mixture of freedom and form: emotionalism alone is merely arbitrary; strict form, taken by itself, is lifeless. This philosophy of music seems almost ideally suited to the art of Frédéric Chopin. Chopin often spent years meticulously refining his works until they seemed to sound perfect, airy and weightless. Nothing in his sonatas, impromptus or mazurkas hints at the difficulty of their birth. Indeed, that’s what sets them apart. It is this meticulousness that has made Chopin one of the most frequently played piano composers to the present day – the complex simplicity of his language, the philosophical grandeur that reduces things to the simplest of statements. A combi¬nation of accessibility and profundity imbues every one of his works. Chopin’s compositions are carefully wrought constructs that thrive on the interplay of melody and harmony, rhythm and vocal line, freedom and form. Like Barenboim, Chopin regarded music as a timeless cosmos, as modernism beholden to tradition and capable of emerging only in the here and now. Even in Chopin, the present is intelligible only through the past. His fantasies, nocturnes and sonatas come to terms with Bachian counterpoint, with Mozart’s humanistic ideal of sound, and with the operatic melodies of his contemporaries, Rossini and Meyerbeer. There is another thing that Barenboim and Chopin have in common: both make music sound as if it were born in the very instant of its performance. At the same time their music harbours infinite knowledge, deep strategy, and embodies rigorous form. Both Chopin and Barenboim believe in the perfection of sound and its eternal reinvention in the living moment. “Every time I play a long-familiar piece of music”, Barenboim says, “I discover something new. Music is unique at every performance, yet it thrives on constant repetition. This wondrous dialectic of repetition and uniqueness has been inherent to music and its performance from its very inception.” Both Barenboim and Chopin are emotional thinkers. Chopin, who was amorously linked with the femme fatale George Sand, loved intellectual challenges and strove for simple happiness to the end of his days. He found it primarily in music. For Barenboim, too, music is an emotional force that gives rise to rules for living. One of his favourite sayings is, “I’ve learned more about living from music than the other way around”. When Daniel Barenboim sits at the piano in his Warsaw recital, his Chopin sounds as the composer may well have imagined it – as an improvised mood-painting created on the spur of the moment, yet a carefully wrought artistic construct in which knowledge of tradition is put to the test and adjusted in the instant of its creation. He plays works from almost every one of Chopin’s preferred genres: fantasies, nocturnes, sonatas, waltzes and barcaroles. We soon realise that each form has a different task. His interpretative approach becomes especially clear in the B flat minor Sonata with the famous funeral march. For Barenboim, this marche funèbre is not simply an effect, but a logical consequence developed from the rest of the sonata. Grave, Scherzo, the concluding presto: all are set in the minor mode – to the outrage of listeners at the premiere. But Barenboim does much to illuminate Chopin’s sombre universe, instilling spirit into this classical master of the piano. No less consummate is his performance of the bombastic A flat major polonaise, op. 53, where he contrasts heft with sensuality. Equally universal yet personal is Barenboim’s interpretation of the C sharp minor Waltz, op. 64 no. 2. Rather than a pièce de bravoure, he conceives it as a piece in which the dance element evolves into an immutable idea in free triple metre. “Time”, he says, “is a fixed quantity in music, and yet it is always relative.” He shows what he means by this in the waltz: rather than playing with metronomic precision, he allows time to expand and shrink, but only to create his own balanced and harmonious narrative cosmos. When Daniel Barenboim confronts Frédéric Chopin, we are treated to more than just the performance of a classical composer. His Warsaw recital is a subtle lesson in the philosophy of music, a lesson which, for all its deep insight into the fabric of the works and the emotions of the musician, remains incredibly sensual and spontaneous. 

 Axel Brüggemann
  2/2011

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