Mostly Beethoven

Handyman: Barenboim at Carnegie Hall.Photo: Chris Lee

Daniel Barenboim is at Carnegie Hall this month, winding up his journey through the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, and just about everyone I encountered at the first recital expected to stay the course with him. These works may be central to nearly every pianist’s repertory, but complete cycles are still rare and always an event.

Now 60, Barenboim has been studying, playing, and recording this music since childhood, so it was not surprising that, if nothing else, his performances of the three sonatas he chose to launch the series conveyed enormous authority and self-confidence. All eight programs sensibly mix works from the early, middle, and late periods, and if the first evening set a reliable tone—Nos. 1 (Op. 2, No. 1), 18 (Op. 31, No. 3), and 29 (Op. 106, the Hammerklavier)—Barenboim right now seems most deeply involved with the cosmic complexities of Beethoven at the end of his life. The pianist’s way with the earlier scores struck me as excessively fussy and misconceived, as if he were looking at them from the perspective of what was to come rather than what is actually in the notes. The Hammerklavier, on the other hand, evolved as the thrilling adventure that the composer intended: dangerous, heartfelt, and vital, an imposing accomplishment not many other pianists today could match.

Never in my wildest youthful imagination did I think that contemporary audiences would ever again sit still for, let alone madly applaud, the operas of Jean-Philippe Rameau, who lived from 1683 to 1764. But precisely that has been happening of late, most recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where William Christie’s esteemed period-instrument group, Les Arts Florissants, performed the composer’s last stage work, Les Boréades, in a production from the Paris National Opera.

One explanation for the Rameau renaissance is the presence of a new breed of musicians like Christie who have a keen understanding of the music’s style as well as the ability to make the notes leap off the page with such infectious grace and vitality. Then, too, the fact that Baroque music theater has lain dormant for more than two centuries leaves directors free to reinvent the genre without having to worry about violating sacred operatic traditions that no one remembers or even much cares about. Indeed, Les Boréades itself has virtually no performance tradition at all. The premiere production was abruptly canceled before Rameau, who died at age 81, could oversee it, and the first complete stage performance did not take place until 1982.

The drama centers on Queen Alphise’s love for Abaris, a young man of unknown descent, and the opposition to their union by Boreas, god of the North Wind, who intends one of his own sons for Alphise—a rather plain plot device perhaps, but spun into an elaborate allegory that explores the irrationality of man and nature as well as notions of individual liberty, a subversive subtext that may have contributed to the opera’s sudden cancellation in 1763. As directed by Robert Carsen, designed by Michael Levine, and choreographed by Édouard Lock, this fanciful production seizes on Rameau’s vivid musical depiction of the four seasons, filling the stage with summer flowers, fall leaves, winter storms, and a spring rain that ultimately falls upon the young lovers like a gentle benediction—a very modern spectacle, but one that cunningly evokes the spirit of the visual coups and ingenious stage machinery that Baroque audiences so appreciated.

Christie’s masterly musical direction also went straight to the heart of this inventive score’s musical spirit, despite a fair amount of unlovely singing. Even the instrumental playing had some uncharacteristically raucous moments, but no matter. It’s been a long wait, and Rameau’s last masterpiece has finally reached the stage with flair and in style.

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