It was January 21 1956 when Daniel Barenboim made his debut at Wigmore Hall. The teenage prodigy’s first steps on to the international music scene feel an age ago now, and over the 40 years or so since Barenboim last appeared at the hall those early years of his career in London have largely receded from view.
It was a quite a coup for the Wigmore to get him back for a solo recital. Having played the two Liszt piano concertos with Pierre Boulez at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday, Barenboim stayed on for this programme featuring a pair of Schubert piano sonatas – an intimate postlude to his UK visit, at least in theory.
Those who were at the South Bank concert will have been forewarned what to expect. A huge premium is placed on finger-perfect accuracy and tonal polish among pianists of the younger generation, but Barenboim has no patience with any of that. He presides with magisterial authority at the piano, dispensing right notes and wrong notes with equal aplomb, elbowing awkward technical passages roughly out of the way, and leaving the music free to sweep along on a grand tide of emotion.
Each of the two sonatas that he chose – the G Major D894 and C Minor D958 – became an epic journey. True, the rhythmical lumps and bumps in the G Major did hamper the message getting across, but it was hard to resist the unashamed grandeur of Barenboim’s conception. On paper, the sonata alternates between passages of expansive lyricism and homely charm, but Barenboim does not “do” homely. Everything was either sublime or heroic. Even the sonata’s final wistful pay-off became a momentary vision of paradise. The classical conflicts of the C Minor sonata roused him to a higher level of accuracy. Even minor themes here plumbed depths of tone, passing accented chords rattled the foundations, and the sonata as a whole felt like a courageous assault on Olympus. The Wigmore does not often entertain playing on this scale.
At the end, Barenboim was presented with the first ever Critics’ Circle Outstanding Musician Award and gave a gracious speech, reminiscing about his early days at the Wigmore – a fitting end to this long-overdue return appearance.