Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m a fan. In the last 30 years I’ve heard him play many times, many more than any other pianist or conductor: Bach, Liszt, Mahler, Schoenberg. My main motivation was curiosity. You could call it professional curiosity. But you could also call it professional bias. Why do music critics fall asleep so often in concerts? Because they hate boredom. When Daniel Barenboim performs, something is always happening, there’s always movement and life. He thinks quickly—often too quickly—three steps ahead. He has easily enough creative energy for two Barenboims. He’s always good for a surprise, whether nasty or nice. I’ve written many, many reviews of Barenboim concerts, in moods of despair and electrification. I’ve done innumerable interviews with him: brief chats on the fly, hour-long conversations cloaked in cigar smoke. More than once he’s greeted me, with mild derision: “Oh, it’s you again!”

He actually doesn’t mind talking to journalists. Sometimes he’ll receive a whole group of them at once. He’ll argue with them, butter them up again, suddenly ask a serious follow-up question, clearly enjoying himself the whole time. He’s unlike most musicians in that way. Once I interviewed him in Weimar; it was the first summer he wasn’t at Bayreuth. Instead, he gathered 80 young musicians from Tel Aviv, Beirut, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Damascus at a music high school near Belvedere Castle, across the Ettersberg (where the concentration camp Buchenwald was located) for a workshop on Beethoven and Brahms. At the time, it was impossible to guess that this would be the first step of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, leading to the equally successful Barenboim-Said Academy with its Pierre Boulez Saal and musical kindergarten. The start was a rocky one; musical fundamentals were missing. Occupied by the chaotic rehearsals, Barenboim said gruffly, “We’re not interested in politics at all.” Then he added, “If the politicians follow our example, all the better. If the Camp David negotiations fail, we’ll have had two weeks of incredible utopia here.”

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A short time later, Barenboim celebrated his 50th year performing. Things were right with the world then. The Twin Towers stood. Twitter hadn’t been invented. Neither Facebook nor Spotify existed, and because Barenboim had bowed out of Bayreuth, its principal director Wolfgang Wagner’s tried-and-true “Meistersinger” interpretation was being led by the young Christian Thielemann. 

Teldec, Barenboim’s record company, still existed back then. The firm produced a luxurious, “not-for-sale” anniversary CD for its biggest asset. The record boasted, alongside excerpts from other recent records (naturally the “Meistersinger,” Beethoven’s Fifth, and an homage to Duke Ellington), three different interviews in German, English, and Spanish. They could have been in French, Russian or Hebrew. Barenboim has four passports. He speaks nine languages. And he never learned to fear. No mental blocks, no stage fright, no inadequacy. Never intimidated by others.

On his very first public appearance, as a child prodigy in Buenos Aires, he felt nothing but joy. “I loved going onstage and I still do,” he said. “You know, these are really my happiest moments, when I know I can play and I can go onstage. And it was exactly like that already in 1950.” He was seven-and-a-half years old at the time of that appearance. Both his parents were piano teachers. What does a child like that play? An all-Beethoven program, of course. There were seven encores. But then he went back out on stage to apologize to the audience: He had to stop because he’d played everything he knew. When he was even smaller, Barenboim assumed everyone in the world played the piano. Everyone who came to the family home did.

When he was ten, the family moved to Tel Aviv. At 12, he went to Salzburg. He studied piano with Edwin Fischer and conducting with Igor Markevitch, graduating at 13. He learned counterpoint and harmony with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Daniel Barenboim, 1958 · Photo: Hurok Attractions PR agency (Public Domain)

Barenboim played for Wilhelm Furtwängler, who called him “a phenomenon,” followed by John Barbirolli and Otto Klemperer. He was flying high. His career progressed with lightning speed: first as a pianist, then later as a conductor as well. With hindsight, this well-documented rise reads like a fairy tale from bygone times. In 1967 and in 1971, when Barenboim was in his mid-20s, he recorded Mozart’s complete Piano Concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra, leading from the piano. Melodious, transparent, yet with an unprecedented dynamism, the vinyls became a reference recording among Mozart experts. In my home, we treasured them like a family heirloom, although it would never have been hard to buy a new copy since the recordings have never gone out of print. No recording, by even the most fine-fingered fortepiano expert, has been able to dethrone them.

Barenboim was never one for historical performance practice. He’s a musician of today, he says, and plays for people who are alive today. In a way, history has proven him right: The rigid fronts of the 1970s and ‘80s have dissolved, and the different schools of interpretation—romantic or historically-informed—coexist peacefully. Both ways are open. Moreover, Barenboim certainly cares about introducing new repertoire, but he makes up his own mind about what this new repertoire should be. For a long time, he ignored the “Mahler Reparations” fad, with its ideological undertone, that gripped the major symphony orchestras in the final third of the 20th century. Finally, he dived into the material with customary vigor, first with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, then with the Staatskapelle Berlin. In 2007, this culminated in a memorable series of performances: Barenboim, taking turns with his friend Pierre Boulez, performed all of Mahler’s symphonies. They surveyed the works with finely-balanced structures, intense timbres, and an utter lack of kitsch. 

I’ll never forget Barenboim’s somnambulant “Tristan” at Bayreuth in the staging by Heiner Müller. I’ll never forget his version of Boulez’s “Dérive 2” with the musicians of the Divan, nor his premiere of Elliott Carter’s one-act opera “What Next?” in Berlin.

Barenboim has as many favorite composers in the 20th century as he does in the 19th. He fights for the new generation, but also against the rot of the routine, against stupidity in music—against stupidity elsewhere. He reinvigorated the Staatskapelle and championed the historical evolution of Berlin’s opera landscape, which would look very different had Barenboim not fought like a bull against the plans to merge two of the three companies. The famous “three million!” Yes, Barenboim is a fighter, but never a dogmatist. I like that about him. Because of that, he’s made himself some very loyal enemies. 

Barenboim has always had multiple musical projects going on at once: in Paris and Chicago, in Milan and Berlin. In the small world of classical music, he has a certain power. Over the years, he has also acquired a team of troubleshooters who make sure that he doesn’t get lost in his unbridled workaholism: a kind of protective wall, a safety net for Barenboim “Industries”—which also includes his family and friends. 

Between “Walküre and “Siegfried” of the new “Ring” at the Staatsoper Berlin, Barenboim announced that he would be unable to continue conducting for health reasons. It was a personal statement, made “in a mixture of confidence and sadness,” and he said he would step back from certain engagements, “especially conducting.” A shock to be sure. But some of the reporting around it, and the ensuing speculation about possible successors, has felt like premature memorializing to me. Hopefully this very personal piece of adulation does not fall under the same umbrella. Barenboim’s vasculitis, a neurological disease, is curable. 80 is the new 60. Get well, go out, keep playing. ¶

Correction, 11/22/2022: The original translation of this article misstated the medium of Barenboim’s recordings of the Mozart Piano Concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra. They were on vinyl, not CD. VAN regrets the error.

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