Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
There is no bigger name or more complex paradox on the modern concert platform than the Argentine-born Israeli pianist-turned-conductor and peace campaigner, Daniel Barenboim.
Publicly, Barenboim is a paragon of liberal enlightenment. He has brought together an orchestra of young Israelis and Palestinians in Weimar, beneath the shadow of the Buchenwald death camp, and bravely given recitals in the insurrectionist West Bank towns of Ramallah and Bir Zeit. He has just brought out in America a book of conversations with the New York-based Palestinian academic Edward Said, whom he describes as 'my most intimate friend'.
In Jerusalem he declared that prime minister Ariel Sharon would be unwelcome at his concerts. The Israeli right clamoured for his arrest over curfew violations and hecklers in a restaurant called him 'traitor' (his wife, Elena, loyally pelted them with salad vegetables). But when the Madrid government awarded him Spanish citizenship last month, Barenboim insisted that he would continue to travel the world on his restrictive Israeli passport.
In Germany, where he heads the Berlin state opera, he is a symbol of anti-racism. In the US, as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he successfully premiered a memorial symphony for Aids victims and a celebration of Afro-American creativity.
When he turns 60 in ten days' time (Nov 15), Barenboim can look back with pride on a life of public benefice. But should he reflect on the sum of his musical achievements, the results will be far less satisfying.
Musically, Barenboim has been a forlorn leader, a pilot of decline. His Chicago orchestra, once the biggest noise in America, last week announced a massive deficit of $6.1 million. The band, which Barenboim took over in 1991 from Sir Georg Solti, has lost its record contract and radio slots and shut down its education centre. It is rapidly vanishing off the world map.
Barenboim's Berlin base is also under siege. The city, needing to save E30m on its arts budget, is threatening to merge his company with the west-side Deutsche Oper, headed by the ultra-nationalist conductor, Christian Thielemann. Once the darling of Bayreuth, Barenboim has also been dislaced in Wagner family plans by the ambitious Thielemann. The galvanising arrival of Sir Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra has further demonstrated the limits of Barenboim's appeal. Beside the frazzle-haired Rattle, the cigar-smoking, waistcoated, polyglot Barenboim looks safe, stale and yesterday's man.
Such comparisons are not entirely fair. Barenboim has done his bit for modernity, introducing difficult works by Birtwistle, Boulez and Carter and restoring the intelligent operas of Busoni to the Berlin stage. His Wagner is never less than affecting and many swear by his Bruckner. Nevertheless, Barenboim has failed to ignite the public with his baton as he does with the witty, apparently effortless muscularity of his piano playing.
The failure is not his alone. The generation of conductors born within five years either side of Hitler's War has faced a mass audience defection to alternative, multicultural entertainments. Some, like Zubin Mehta and Riccardo Muti, have settled for local hero status in Munich and Milan. Barenboim's ambition, however, was world-embracing and his retreat is of global importance since his not only the most famous but also, by the gift of heaven, the most wantonly talented of his kind.
He once dreamed aloud of playing recitals in London, New York and Los Angeles on a single day, an artistically void feat achievable by Concord. It was all so easy for Barenboim. The short-trousered prodigy who made his Buenos Aires debut in 1951 became a fulcrum of London's Swinging Sixties with his chums Mehta, Ashkenazy, Perlman, Zukerman and the English cellist Jacqueline Du Pre. In Carnaby Street gear, they stole television prime time and staged unforgettable summer festivals on London's South Bank.
Barenboim's marriage to Du Pre was tragically blighted when she contracted multiple sclerosis in 1972. Contrary to assertions by self-seeking members of her family in the film Hilary and Jackie , he provided exemplary care for his wife until her death in 1987.
Resisting American temptations, he worked with the Orchestre de Paris, so that he could return to London at the drop of a baton.
Esteemed in France, he took charge of the new Bastille Opera. But before the house opened, Barenboim was sacked by the Yves Saint-Laurent fashion boss Pierre Bergé for supposedly over-spending and producing too few French operas. Barenboim won a seven-figure legal settlement but his programming for the Bastille had been, in truth, rigid and turgid - no different from Zurich or Vienna.
His conducting acquired daring and fluidity with the superior Chicago orchestra, but Barenboim could not dominate the city skies as Solti had done. He grew, with age and adversity, self-regarding and truculent. Players find him impatient, journalists haughty and unforthcoming. Among friends, Barenboim remains the life and soul of the musical party, perhaps too often for the good of his music. The night before a Carnegie Hall concert, he was seen carousing in the small hours in a Chicago nightclub with his recital partner, Placido Domingo. The performance itself was unexceptional.
Barenboim, who can do anything in music, has been known to deliver less than musicians with half his ability and intelligence. His recorded cycles of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner have marvellous passages of musical serenity but lack the edge of comprehensive reinterpretation to compete with the mono relics of past masters. A courageous idealist who believes that symphonic music can heal human conflict, Barenboim appears to have no idea how to redeem symphonic music from the slough of 21st century human indifference.
Sixty can mark a coming of age in the podium and many maestros produce their best work in silvered manes. Barenboim may yet surprise us, but his mind appears to be focussed on higher things. 'As musicians and creators of culture,' he said earlier this year, 'we must not wait for politicians: we must be active.' He has spoken of a dream in which he is prime minister of Israel and 'my baton conducts a magnificent new symphony - a treaty celebrating the harmonious co-existence of Israelis and Palestinians'. It's a magnificent vision, messianic and quixotic at once.
What Barenboim needs to remember is that a musician must let his music do the talking. With the downfall of Chicago and Berlin, he has little to show for his life on the podium. Too smart to be trapped like Samson between collapsing walls, Barenboim is devoting more time to playing the piano, giving a rare South Bank recital at the end of this month and making solo discs for EMI. But Daniel Barenboim remains torn by conflicting ambitions. He must decide soon which of his talents is the one he wants the world to remember him by.
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]