Back in the days when the Royal Opera House used to host solo recitals Daniel Barenboim gave a memorable evening of Liszt piano showpieces, including some of the impossibly glittering operatic paraphrases. His fingers have slowed down since then, and of course he appears in public less often as a pianist, but that did not stop him wanting to mark the Liszt bicentenary.
This concert has to rank among the most prestigious of the Liszt bicentenary events in London, as well as one of the most unlikely. Having elected to play the two piano concertos in one programme, Barenboim brought with him his own Staatskapelle Berlin and, of all possible conductors, Pierre Boulez, who can hardly count Liszt in his arch-modernist pantheon.
The result was a bit hit-and-miss, but thoroughly absorbing. This year has already seen other performances of the concertos in London where Liszt’s virtuoso piano writing has been rattled off with more dazzle than was on display here.
Faced with the cascades of double octaves that open the First Concerto, Barenboim threw himself into the fray as much in hope as expectation, hammering some of them with dogged ferocity and splashing his way through the rest. The faster music did not sparkle and showpiece precision was always just out of reach. But merely playing fast and loud was not what Barenboim was about: he plumbed a deeper tone than most pianists and made the lyrical music sing from the heart. Where others sweat to create a bit of grandeur, he casually threw off an air of imperious authority. It almost felt as if Liszt himself was in front of us, improvising as he went along.
In between, Boulez conducted two works by Liszt’s son-in-law Wagner. The rhapsodic nature of Wagner’s Eine Faust-Ouvertüre neatly sealed the artistic bond between the two composers and Boulez cast a cool, objective eye over the Siegfried Idyll. Both performances were distinguished by the impeccable classical playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin, which seems to have retained the cherished style of the old east German orchestras. To end, Barenboim offered one encore, Liszt’s Valse oubliée No. 1, very slow, dreamy, magical – just what he might have played all those years ago at the Royal Opera House.