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Barenboim on Beethoven
and with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Granada

Daniel Barenboim is well served with a vast discography. He celebrated 50 years on the concert platform with a wonderful documentary CD made in Buenos Aires which should not be missed, and he now returns to Beethoven.

I attended, and recall vividly and with great pleasure from 1967, the young Barenboim's notable first Beethoven sonata cycle, at London's newly opened Queen Elizabeth Hall; subsequently recorded on plum-label HMV LPs.

He will be giving the cycle again in January/February 2008, at the re-opened Royal Festival Hall.

I have previously welcomed briefly Barenboim's third recording of the 32, a marvellous revisit to share with us his current thinking about this key oeuvre in anyone's canonic masterpieces collection of piano music.

There are 6 slender DVDs in a slip case, the sonatas filmed in mid-2005 at the Staatsoper Berlin and, of especial interest, six 55-minute masterclasses on individual Beethoven sonata movements filmed in Chicago.

Perhaps others will find, as we have, that it is from those that we learn the most. Barenboim is a marvellously fluent expositor, with a fund of relevant anecdotes and far ranging repsonses to questions from the audience, and with less than an hour for each he produces palpable improvement in the playing of his six young pianists from different countries: Saleem Abboud Ashkar (of Palestinian/Israeli background); Alessio Bax (Italy),Jonathan Biss (U.S.), David Kadouch (France),Lang Lang (China) and Shai Wosner (Israel).*

I remain disturbed (and am probably alone so?) by the filming of the sonatas, which sets the scene well, but becomes over intrusive as the performances proceed. Although done with some connection with the phrasing of the music, it is disconcerting to be whisked from long shots of the whole opera house to close ups of dripping forehead and right up to Barenboim's finger-nails in huge magnification. There might be something for advanced pianists to learn from slowing down to study fingerings, but all in all it distracts concentration from the continuity and continuity of the music itself.

Having counted 19 camera changes in the three-minute scherzo of the Hammerklavier, we switched off the screen and better enjoyed the expansive span of the slow movement.

Barenboim and West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at The Alhambra

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No. 3
Bottesini (arr. M. Bunya) : Fantasia on themes by Rossini
Brahms: Symphony No. 1

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim

EuroArts Arte DVD 2055538
[Live from the Alhambra, Granada, August 2006, 85 mins]

The same problem obtains, though to lesser degree and with special extenuating circumstances, to the latest release of Barenboim the conductor, with Brahms 1st Symphony at the Alhambra in Granada. Vision with sound unquestionably contributes to the appreciation of this project, "a workshop in harmonious coexistence; a forum for humanitarian dialogue".

It was an outdoors concert in the Alhambra Charles V Palace, the audience fanning themselves in colouful informal clothes, and the orchestra incongruously in formal black...

Here there are powerful extra-musical considerations, and it is good to share Barenboim's humanitarian project with the audience, and in so exotic a setting. No problem with the heroic overture Leonora No 3, or in the entertaining Rossini/Bottestini froth, a duo-concertante item for cello and double bass, the Israeli cellist and Egyptian bassist wreathed in "a permanent smile of perfect understanding and evident pleasure in their animated dialogue".

But with the symphony one does become distracted by detail of individual physiognomies and expressions to an extent which makes it hard to decide whether this is a good, or possibly a great, performance? and a committed Brahms No 1 make this good viewing (from a live TV transmission with excellent sound). There is an added dimension towards the end of this outdoor concert beneath the Spanish sky, as afternoon gives way gradually to dusk and natural light to the harder shadows of artificial lighting.

EuroArts promotes their Barenboim DVDs under the catch-phrase Listen with your Eyes.

But would you want to view it again, that is the problem with concert and recital DVDs? Tell Musical Pointers what you think?

Peter Grahame Woolf

* Jonathan Biss recently signed an exclusive contract with EMI and Saleem Abboud Ashkar made a debut recital CD for the label in 2005.