BBC Proms 2016 / 43: Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich

This may be a career limiting move, but I’m prepared to admit that I didn’t on the whole enjoy Daniel Barenboim and Martha Argerich’s Prom last night. I imagine you won’t read that kind of statement anywhere else on the internet.

I know of a handful of people who were very excited at the prospect of the much-anticipated double bill finally appearing at the Proms (Argerich has a reputation of not so much cancelling engagements as not committing to them in the first place, at least not in the orthodox sense – at least she was in 2001). Barenboim wows audiences wherever he appears too – of course he does. Teaming up with the West Eastern Divan Orchestra was bound to be a brilliant concert.

The paradox is that it was a brilliant concert. The band – established as a youth orchestra twelve years ago, now the players have grown up so the orchestra has matured too – played with a remarkable warmth. It was like nothing else I had heard before. As an ensemble they outstrip nearly every other ensemble and a lot of that is to do with the relationship between players and conductor.

The creation was somehow miraculous, but it wasn’t something I wanted to hear more of. It was almost too perfect. It was as though someone had told me to try on a really expensive piece of designer clothing because they wanted me to experience that moment. I did so, appreciated it for what it was, but realised at the same time how the experience left me feeling a little cold.

Part of my problem (and really, it’s my problem – not the orchestra or the soloist or the conductor) is the sense of expectation which accompanies any Barenboim or Argerich appearance. There is an assumption that if Barenboim is on the podium it will just be brilliant, no question. That he could perhaps only step onto the podium and do nothing else and we’d all be incredibly appreciative he was even there.

I exaggerate a little to illustrate the point. But, whenever I sense that assumption about any kind of event, there’s a bit of me that rather hopes that there will be a chink in the armour. That there will be something in the perfect performance which takes me by surprise; that the armour won’t shine quite as brightly as everyone assumed it would. I don’t look out for errors – that would make a vile harridan – but I don’t want to assume it will be brilliant. What would be the point in even attending the concert in the first place if I knew for certain it would be brilliant?

Those assumptions and expectations bring out the worst in others, in particular some members of the cognoscenti. Words like ‘maestro’ are bandied around quite a lot, as though musical greatness demands we refer to people with an outdated and an archaic title – an ego-massaging or self-aggrandising exercise. Such unquestioning deference feels borderline sycophancy.

There are no assumptions with live music, that’s part of its appeal. There are certain requirements which need to be met for the likelihood of a moving performance to connect with the audience, but no-one can predict that something will be amazing before it actually happens. People I know do that before some concerts (not just Barenboim’s). And when they do, they instantly ruin the prospect.

Implicit in this expectation is the promise of perfection. Perfection was present during the West Eastern Divan Orchestra Prom. I don’t want perfection. I want there to be some jeopardy in a live performance. Jeopardy demands investment on the part of the listener – a commitment to see this thing out and make an assessment after. If I go into a performance with no expectations then everything else that follows is a surprise. Assure me it will be brilliant, then what follows will almost certainly be a disappointment.

There was another thing I was (probably) projecting onto proceedings. Argerich’s reputation/style/tendency/distinctiveness around commitment to gigs infuriates me. Obviously, she is an amazing musician. An international exponent of her art. Artists at that level can pick and choose what they want to do, of course. But I’m a traditionalist, I think. If you’re going to do a gig, you should do the gig, unless you’re physically unable to play. Eccentricity is interesting, but at the same time it’s annoying. And when you do commit to that gig, then I start feeling condescended by your appearance on the platform.

The encore somehow provoked me even more. Conductor and pianist – lifelong friends, both of them prodigies – sit down at the piano and play a duet. Their musicianship was incredible, the energy between them remarkable. A joy to listen to. But simmering somewhere underneath was a nagging sense that the stars on the stage were bestowing on us a great gift, taking advantage of this great moment and giving the audience a chance to see something they’re probably unlikely to see in London any time soon or indeed ever again. There were even moments in the encore when it all felt a little bit self-indulgent.

Don’t read this as an unequivocal fact. It’s opinion. More importantly, this is all a me thing. It’s about how I react to the artist, not necessarily about the artist themselves. The artist is allowed to do whatever he or she wants. Of course. How I’m reacting to it says far more about me, than it does about them, so the saying goes.

But why is it important? What do I conclude from what might seem mean-spirited?

I’ve already mentioned perfection. I think I just have an aversion to absolute perfection. If it’s utterly perfect or perceived to be then somehow it’s inauthentic. That’s such an odd thing to say when the sound is undeniably beautiful and exquisitely and instinctively executed, I know. I just need a sense that what I’m listening to is real.

But more than that there’s this sense that Barenboim and Argerich are from an entirely different classical music era, a time when instrumentalists were in the ascendancy, pursued by television producers and documentary filmmakers. A time when classical music was incredibly glamorous. Read any Jacqueline du Pre or Barenboim biographies and the glamour oozes off the page. They are both, Barenboim especially, from that age.

That way of being for instrumentalists from that era is still visible when you see them on stage. It’s not wrong. It’s not irrelevant. It’s other-worldly. It distances me from them. It makes them a member of the elite – the untouchables. And the present day is demanding that the gap between artists and audience is reduced not widened. It is a symptom of their brilliance and their genius that they are put on that pedestal. But I think I feel it more keenly now.

Their playing was spell-binding, their presence thought-provoking. But I think I’m probably more interested in musicians I can connect with as an audience member. I just can’t relate to them.

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