Opera Buff Conjures Bel Canto On the Piano

12.16.08
Daniel Barenboim
The New York Times

Most musicians, following a week like the one Daniel Barenboim just concluded, would think they had earned a weekend off.

On Thursday, joining the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall to celebrate Elliott Carter's 100th birthday, Mr. Barenboim played the daunting solo part in Mr. Carter's newest work for piano and orchestra, ''Interventions,'' as well as Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto and Schubert's Fantasy in F minor for Piano Four-Hands, with James Levine as his partner. On Friday night he conducted the fourth in a run of six performances of Wagner's ''Tristan und Isolde'' at the Metropolitan Opera, a five-hour evening.

Yet on Sunday Mr. Barenboim was back at the Met, this time to give the first piano recital presented in the house since Vladimir Horowitz's 22 years ago to the day. The floor of the orchestra pit was raised by its hydraulic lift to the level of the stage so that Mr. Barenboim's piano could be placed ahead of the proscenium, which helped project the sound.

For his program he had the fascinating and very apt idea of playing works by Liszt, not the flash-and-burn virtuoso showpieces, but a group of unconventional scores inspired by the composer's love of everything Italian -- literature, landscape and, above all, opera.

He began with ''Tre Sonetti di Petrarca,'' three musical ruminations on sonnets by Petrarch. Love from afar may be the emotional inspiration for these piano pieces, which mix lyrical effusions with virtuosic flights. But bel canto opera was clearly Liszt's musical inspiration, as Mr. Barenboim made clear in performances that gave shape, breadth and poignancy to the evocations of fine-spun, long-lined operatic melody.

Rather than beef up the piano sound for an opera house seating nearly 4,000, Mr. Barenboim, 66, played with uncompromising intimacy, inviting listeners to lean in and focus. This did not work at first. A lot of coughing and two cellphones broke the spell. But Mr. Barenboim somehow shut out the distractions.

He then played an exquisite performance of ''St. François d'Assise: La Prédication aux Oiseaux,'' an astonishingly experimental piece from the early 1860s, in which lacy, whispered melodic lines emerge through a wondrous maze of ethereal trills and fluttering passagework. Here Liszt seems so advanced in harmony and color that he skips right past Debussy and points to Messiaen, another composer inspired by the good St. Francis, who listened to the songs of birds.

Next on the program was the ''Dante'' Sonata, in which Liszt explored thematic transformation, somewhat similar to Wagner's technique of leitmotifs in opera. This episodic, formidably difficult score, thick with outbursts of cascading octaves and surging runs, usually strikes me as incoherent. While conveying the fantastical strangeness of the music, Mr. Barenboim made it seem organic and monumental. And if once in a while batches of wrong notes slipped into a crashing fortissimo chord, it hardly mattered, given the strength of the conception and the wondrous colorings of the performance.

After intermission he played transcriptions from three Verdi operas, though transcription is hardly the word for works that so boldly transform the sources. Liszt's transcription of the exotic sacred dance and tender final duet from ''Aida'' can be heard as music about other music -- that is, one composer's musical essay on an opera that fascinates him. The same is true of the ''Miserere'' from ''Il Trovatore,'' and the Concert Paraphrase from ''Rigoletto.''

Mr. Barenboim played all three with technical dash, elegance and the enthusiasm of a true opera buff. Following an ecstatic ovation he offered three encores: a wistful Baroque sonata by an actual Italian, Scarlatti; and two pieces by another piano composer who adored Italian opera, Chopin -- the ''Minute'' Waltz, and the Nocturne in D flat in a heavenly performance.

The only thing Mr. Barenboim has not done during this visit to New York is to take the Met stage and sing. But he came as close as a pianist can during his all-Liszt recital.