Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Barenboim inside and outside the Festival Hall (2)

Questions arising from the last recital of Daniel Barenboim's 2008 Beethoven Sonatas series

Royal Festival Hall, London 17 Febuary 2008

Daniel Barenboim's 2008 Beethoven Sonatas series at the Festival Hall has broken records and raises many issues for discussion. Musical Pointers was unable to secure tickets for its opening recital (the Hammerklavier had seemed to be the sonata most suitable for so large an auditorium) but we have been able to cover two of the later recitals.

In common with all the critics of the 11 February programme whose reviews we have read (the one with with the Pastoral and Op 109 sonatas) we found that evening to have been a piano recital experience unrivalled for many years, leaving us determined to try to get into the the last one with Op 111.

That hope being completely thwarted, we settled for going to the RFH Ballroom to cover it from the relay, as recommended by our reviewers of an earlier evening on 6 February: " - - the sound is certainly clearer through the foyer speakers, where seats and a big screen have been set up, enabling late-comers and passers-by to enjoy a pretty full musical experience. With far less ambient noise than the Barbican equivalent, this last innovation is by far the best aspect of the RFH refurbishment. The acoustic inside the hall is warmer, but at the cost of some clarity, so making the pianist’s task difficult except at pp or in ff chords."

Editors should not lightly contradict their reviewers. But our experience of Barenboim on 11 February - technically commanding and with palpable emotional involvement; not neglecting Beethoven's sometimes subtle, sometimes quite rough humour - was so much at variance with those of our JC and YCh on 6 February (sharing a single ticket) as to merit comment; importantly also because we could no, from our own experience, t endorse their enthusiasm for the RFH's 'overflow' acoustics.

Although comparing their experiences with ours of 11th evening (inside the hall) and 17th afternoon (outside, in the Ballroom) cannot be of like with like, our final memory of the cycle which we had made every effort to cover is tarnished by disappointment. This afternoon's experience was far from aesthetic, and after failing to find anywhere in the Ballroom with a decent sound for listening, we abandoned the exercise after Op 14/1.

The sound from the RFH relay system speakers was so variable and distorted as to be impossible for serious listening, and the image on the large screen had the pianist and his grand piano as miniscule as they'd look from far back seats. The prevailing colour in daylight was depressingly greyish. Barenboim himself appeared as a blurred little figure with no presence. No identification or attention to his finger work and pedalling was possible. *

People had voiced regret that this overflow arrangement had not been publicised sufficiently, else more prospective ticket purchasers who had been disappointed might have availed themselves of what YCh thought sound-wise not seriously inferior to listening inside the hall - and indeed I was proposing to develop that theme around the subject of the prevalent "mystique" about sharing the same physical space as the performers and breathing the same air; more broadly, whether the always taken for granted advantage of that echt-"live" listening situation was becoming relative and anachronistic with the advance of technologies... Disappointment with the RFH relay pulled that rug from under my feet.

The whole 20 days event, which surely exceeded the promoters' best hopes whilst embarrassing the box office, raises questions for Daniel Barenboim himself and for South Bank Centre's future ‘Artist as Leader’ projects. From The Times we learn that not many more than some "633 avid Beethovenians" may have managed to book for all eight costly concerts. So it was a "cycle" for the few.

What Neil Fisher in The Times reveals is that "Daniel Barenboim’s performances of the 32 sonatas, which he is playing from memory, will remain unrecorded for posterity. The Israeli pianist has refused to allow the BBC either to broadcast or televise the current series of concerts. After Sunday afternoon’s final leg in this musical marathon these legendary concerts will live on only in the memories of those lucky enough to have had tickets."

A spokesman for the BBC said: “We were very keen for Radio 3 to record the concerts. Regrettably, Daniel Barenboim declined the opportunity. We tried very hard.” Barenboim, 65, has also refused to allow any live pictures of his performances (hence, I suppose, no camera close up views in the Ballroom). That resulted in frustratingly partial experiences for many potential listeners, including representatives of the press. Were those refusals, which contributed to the furore and the besieging of the box office for returns, an understandable reaction against the whole recording/filming razzmatazz, or an expression of a higher mystique? Maybe he and his record company considered that enough was enough with the Berlin DVDs, but we have published substantive reservations about those.

The last word on Beethoven 2008 at RFH deserves to go to Martin Kettle of The Guardian, whose thorough preparation for the assignment vindicates his privileged position of being able to review the series as a whole; do read his article.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* P.S. Re the "RFH ballroom" overflow setup: our adverse experience proves to have a mundane explanation. The relay system had broken down on the final afternoon, so I have now learned. The catastrophic technical failure was apparently rectified for the Op 111 sonata, by which time we had departed...

Our critic on the 6 February evening has expanded his note that "the sound is certainly clearer through the foyer speakers, where seats and a big screen have been set up, enabling late-comers and passers-by to enjoy a pretty full musical experience" by confirming that the sound was indeed excellent, comparable with best hi-fi; the picture on the screen likewise, with the camera pointed vertically downwards, so that the piano and Daniel Barenboim filled quite a lot of screen from a fixed viewpoint - his hands could be watched easily.

He summarised this as being "amazingly good quality". This leaves us surprised that no apology and explanation to the listeners assembled in the ballroom was made at the time ...


See also Barenboim/Beethoven on DVD

The Guardian Photo:Monika Ritterhaus

Sunday Times overview (PaulDriver)