It seems impossible to believe that Daniel Barenboim is only 66 years old. It feels like he has been around forever. Possibly it’s because the music he plays–the music he’s spent most of his life playing to the extent that it seems inextricable from the man himself-seems to exist outside of time. Revered for completing a recorded cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas while still in his 20′s, he then tackled Beethoven’s piano concertos, and then the piano sonatas and concertos of Mozart. For good measure he also handled the piano concertos of Brahms and Bartok. Barenboim cemented his legacy as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from the early ’90s through 2006. Want more? He was married to the famous, and beautiful, cellist Jacqueline du Pre until her premature death.
All of which is to say: he’s the only thing cooler than a rock star; he’s a classical music star. You want to hang with Mick and Keith? I’ll hang with Wolfgang Amadeus and Ludwig Van. I’d rather spend a half hour listening to Barenboim discuss his experiences than a free week pass on tour with any rock band on the planet. But I’m weird like that. Then again, check this out:
“Rubinstein read Cervantes in Spanish, Dostoyevsky in Russian, Voltaire in French,” Mr. Barenboim said. “Music has become specialized today. There used to be a different notion of musical culture. I believe that Furtwängler genuinely felt — maybe he was naïve, but he felt that he personally could save German culture from the Nazis. He wrote about the introduction to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in relation to the Greek idea of chaos and catharsis. How many musicians think that way today?”
Barenboim shows no signs of slowing down, and the profile of him in todays New York Times here (from which the above quote is taken) reveals a man who is always looking for a new challenge. You think Ozzy Osbourne is controversial? Barenboim broke the half-century taboo of performing Wagner in Israel (in 2001) and has used his influence, and the profoundly positive influence of the music he conducts, to promote dialogue and understanding amongst nations. To put it simply, his work with Palestinian intellectual Edward Said arguably did more to advance relations between Israel and Palestine than 90% of our world’s politicians.
But all of this is just backstory (amazing and life-affirming though it is). Before I knew anything about Barenboim’s politics or his iconoclastic journey, I knew him through Beethoven. Or vice versa. My first exposure to Beethoven’s piano sonatas was courtesy of Barenboim’s initial take on the works (from ’67; he revisited the cycle many years later). It was that time in my life (age 17), it was that era in general (1987, one of the very first compact discs I owned) but mostly it was the music. Indelible and unforgettable. Then, and now. Bottom line: this is my favorite music in the world, and if there was one set of works I had to take with me to that cliched desert island, it would be Barenboim’s set of Beethoven sonatas. If the person sending me to this imaginary island was particularly sadistic and insisted it could only be one disc, it would be this one: