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A boxed set of immensity and power from Barenboim


Daniel Barenboim, "A Retrospective:The Complete Sony Recordings" (Sony Classical, 43 discs and 3 DVD's)

It isn't every 21st century classical titan whose life has the tempestuousness, melodrama and tragedy of their 19th century ancestors. Daniel Barenboim is virtually alone at the moment, it seems, on his level.

The tale of the Argentine/Israeli piano virtuoso began as an Argentinian prodigy with Martha Argerich and soared when he fell in love with and married cellist Jacqueline DuPre until her death from multiple sclerosis at the tragically early age of 42. At the height of the Barenboim/DuPre romance, their sublime performance together of the Elgar Cello concerto was cherished as something even greater than its imposing musical self – as a virtual reaffirmation of Art as Romance.

When the tragedy of DuPre's story was made into a very good movie starring Emily Watson called "Hillary and Jackie," the other half of the story went public – Barenboim's long affair with the woman who has long been his wife, Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova (he has said DuPre was not cognizant of it) couldn't help but give one of classical music's great stories an operatic flavor.

There is no way to gloss over DuPre's masterful performance of the Elgar Concerto with her husband conducting in the center of this stupendous set. But in a box as profligate as this you have it in the full context of music in Barenboim's conducting life – a series of Elgar records by Barenboim the conductor, including The "Enigman" Variations, Symphonies One and Two and the violin concerto with his friend Pinchas Zukerman.

Barenboim's great influences as a conductor include Sir John Barbirolli, along with Wilhelm Furtwangler, which, no doubt, helps explain his superb run of Elgar included here. Barenboim's life has, on the other hand, been controversial among Israeli and Jewish intellectuals – his performances of Wagner in Israel (a la Bernstein), his book with Palestine intellectual and friend, the late Edward Said, his and DuPre's risk of life and limb in the 1967 War to perform. Barbenboim's operatic life provides weird counterpoint to his wildly uneven music on record as well as his intellectual and political independence as one of our time's most public cultural humanists. That he can be a very great conductor of late romantic composers is proven again and again here. While there are, for instance, greater performances of Schoenberg's magnificent "Pelleas und Melisande" on record, Barbenboim's recording with the Orchestre De Paris is quite marvelous by any assay. On the other hand, his attraction to Berlioz doesn't always seem to be rewarded by the resultant records (especially not on the "Symphonie Fantastique"). But now in his 70s, the former child prodigy has always been at home conducting for the greatest soloists of his time – Arthur Rubinstein, Isaac Stern, guitarist John Williams (in the Villa-Lobos guitar concerto and Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez").

Lest anyone forget that before he became a world-touring conducting fixture in Berlin, London, Chicago and Vienna, he plays Brahms piano concerti here and Strauss' "Burleske" for piano and orchestra, along with piano parts for sonatas by soloists Stern and Itzhak Perlman. Given the high profile Barenboim has long maintained as a classical music sensibility, it seems unfortunate that the marvelous occasion of collecting his first decades on record didn't come with Barenboim's own comments in essays or interviews. But it's a boxed set of immensity and power, for all the erratic quality of the performances within.

3 stars (out of four)


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