Conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim's cell phone rings‹set to the sound of a tango, reflecting his native Argentina‹and he answers in Spanish. A few minutes later the electronic tango strikes up again, and this time he confers in Hebrew, reflecting the adopted home and heritage he has found in Israel. He hangs up and returns to English.
In the 43 years since Barenboim first performed the complete Beethoven piano sonatas for a public audience, he's been the master of symphony orchestras on two continents, and counts among his many recordings the major operas of Wagner and the complete piano concertos of Mozart.
Returning next month to play the full cycle of 32 sonatas at Carnegie Hall, he says that this marathon has given him a fuller understanding of Beethoven's own development as a man.
Barenboim has had a busy season, not only conducting and playing piano around the world, but winning a 2003 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording (Tannhäuser), and publishing a book of essays and interviews, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society, co-authored by Edward W. Said. He also found time to make headlines by crossing into the West Bank and performing with Palestinian students for a Palestinian audience.
Playbill: You've doubtless changed since the first time you publicly performed the Beethoven sonatas in 1960. What are you finding in them now that you didn't then?
Barenboim: In 43 years I've been through a tremendous amount of music‹opera, symphonic music, and other piano repertoire. I played the Beethoven sonatas last summer for the first time in 15 years and I tried to distill all I had learned into them. To do that on material you know very well is fascinating. There is a certain feeling of comfort, of finding well-known territory again, but at the same time seeing so many new things in it, especially about harmonic progressions and harmonic tensions and how to articulate them.
Playbill: Can you give me an example?
Barenboim: If there is a concrete difference in how I play now, it is the added weight of importance I attach to the harmonic progressions as a key to musical expression. The speed and articulation of the harmony are very important. After you have experienced at close hand the chromaticism of Wagner, you know how chromaticism moves, and the speed that it needs. I found myself realizing that [to play the sonatas correctly] in certain cases more time was needed because of the weight of the harmonies.
Playbill: If Beethoven could be sitting here with us, what would you ask him about the sonatas?
Barenboim: Several things! In the "Hammerklavier" Sonata [No. 29], the first movement, there is a question: Before the recapitulation is it A-natural or is it A-sharp? It's very important because if it is A-natural, it is an evolutionary modulation toward B-flat. If it is an A-sharp it is enharmonic‹in other words, the A-sharp becomes B-flat. I've played both, and both are logical, so it's not clear. I'd really be most curious about what was really right.
And in a more general way, I would question him about the relationship between speed and content. How much freedom does he feel his music requires? Freedom in the sense of fluctuating the speed, in both directions, taking the time for more expressiveness and also going ahead in a tempo for added agitation. The whole relationship between speed and content is very important.
Playbill: Do you ever wish you had access to original recordings by the classic composers of their works, like the Beethoven sonatas?
Barenboim: Well, you know, the composer's first idea is not always the best. They don't have to deal with the weight of sound. I remember the last orchestra piece of Pierre Boulez. I conducted the world premiere in Chicago. The score arrived with a certain metronome mark, and I asked him, "Are you sure about that?" He said, "Why do you ask?" I said, "It seems to me that the complexity of the texture would require more time than you allow by your metronome mark." He replied, "Well, do it in the rehearsals as you think it right and then we will see." We ended up I think 60 percent different from what he had indicated. He changed it himself. I asked him, "How is it possible when you are such a great composer and also such a great practical conductor, that the metronome mark could be so far removed from what you originally intended?" And he said, "It's very simple: When I compose, I cook with water. But when I conduct, I cook with fire." It's exactly this: the weight of the sound.
Playbill: You made a bit of history with the sonatas in September 2002 when you went into Ramallah and performed one with the Palestinians, after having been refused permission for such a contact six months before. How did the audience respond to you?
Barenboim: It was an unforgettable experience. I'm not a politician. I don't have a peace plan for the Middle East. But I believe that one of the main lessons that we have to learn from the 20th century is that we cannot expect politicians to do everything for us. There are a lot of things that it is our duty and privilege to do as private citizens. Cultural, personal things are very important, and this is why I went there. I played the "Moonlight" Sonata and three Palestinian youngsters played for me. I wanted a piece that was not too long, so I could have time to hear them play, and yet a piece that had weight, and was well known. The reaction was very positive. For many of them it was the first time they had had a positive thought about anything that came from Israel. Many of them had seen only Israeli tanks and Israeli soldiers, and suddenly they saw an Israeli musician, to whom they could relate. It lowered the level of hatred considerably‹if only for those people and only for that time. People said it was courageous of me to go, but it was courageous of them to invite me, too.
Robert Viagas is program director of Playbill Broadcast and editor of Playbill Books.