A Liszt of why we miss Barenboim emerges from recital

Daniel Barenboim
Chicago Sun Times

A woman riding a Michigan Avenue bus Thursday night summed it up. The vehicle was jammed with people still dazzled by the concert at the Harris Theater.

"I miss him,'' she said wistfully, echoing the sentiments of most in the large audience on hand for Daniel Barenboim's all-Liszt piano recital in the acoustically splendid theater in Millennium Park.

As music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1991 to 2006, Barenboim drew mixed reviews on his way with the baton.

Most music lovers agreed, though, that he was one of his era's greatest pianists. His piano recitals at Symphony Center, with repertoire stretching from Bach to Duke Ellington, were high points of Chicago's musical seasons.

Thursday's concert, a repeat of programs Barenboim gave earlier this month in Philadelphia and at New York's Metropolitan Opera, was certainly a highlight of the current local season. Not only was it was his first solo recital in Chicago since leaving the CSO in June 2006, but his choice of repertoire was extremely thoughtful.

An evening of Liszt, a titanic composer and pianist enamored of the grand, 19th century Romantic gesture, can leave an audience feeling battered. The onslaught of extravagant emotion, thundering chords and virtuoso flourishes can just be too much.

Barenboim lacks for nothing in the thunder-hurling area, but he was after something more intimate Thursday. Even in Liszt's gargantuan paraphrases of operatic music, the playing sounded transparent and unrushed.

The concert opened with three piano transcriptions of songs Liszt had written to poems by Petrarch, transcriptions drawn from a collection titled "Annees de Pelerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) Deuxieme Annee: Italie.'' "Legendes,'' Liszt's evocation of St. Francis of Assisi's sermon to the birds, followed, and the concert's first half closed with the complex "Dante Sonata," also from the "Years of Pilgrimage" Italian collection. After intermission came concert paraphrases of scenes from three Verdi operas: "Aida,'' "Il Trovatore'' and "Rigoletto."

In the final Petrarch selection, Barenboim's bell-like trills and dulcet, singing melodic lines created a sense of suspended time. In "Legendes,'' the atmosphere shifted between playful flights and more weighty, serene repose. In the opera paraphrases, Barenboim never allowed Verdi's singing melodies and underlying harmonies to be overwhelmed by cascading octaves or frenzied chords.

Barenboim performed on his own piano, a custom-built Steinway that was flown in from Germany. Reportedly he was happy with the way the piano sounded in the Harris Theater. With luck, we'll hear him there again.