Daniel Barenboim's best recordings
From the podium and the piano stool, Daniel Barenboim has made scores of great recordings. Here are just a few of them
Born in Argentina in 1942, Daniel Barenboim has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as both pianist and conductor. Barenboim, who recently announced that he was stepping back from live performance, has proved himself a distinguished conductor and interpreter of music from the Romantic era and beyond.
Key figures in Barenboim's musical career have included the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who labelled the young pianist a 'phenomenon' and invited him to play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.1 with the Berlin Philharmonic. Then there was the inspirational cellist Jacqueline du Pré, Barenboim's partner for many lauded chamber music recordings – and a 20-year marriage, until the latter's tragic death in 1987. Lastly, Beethoven has been something of a colossus in Barenboim's career, both on the podium and at the piano. He has made several much-admired cycles of both the Beethoven symphonies and the piano sonatas.
Here are a few of Daniel Barenboim's best recordings as both pianist and conductor. You may also enjoy our interview with the great musician.
What are Daniel Barenboim's best recordings as pianist?
Beethoven Cello Sonatas
Jacqueline du Pré (cello)
Barenboim recorded Beethoven's Cello Sonatas with his young wife, the peerless cellist Jacqueline du Pré. And a very fine cycle of performances they are too. Recorded at the 1970 Edinburgh Festival and transmitted on BBC Radio later that year, Barenboim and du Pré's performances have an intimacy, spontaneity, and sense of occasion that are a joy to hear. You may also want to hear the duo teaming up with violinist and friend Pinchas Zukerman to record Beethoven's similarly lovely Piano Trios.
As a pianist – as well as a conductor – Daniel Barenboim is perhaps best known in the core Austro-German Romantic repertoire. And, indeed, as a conductor and performer of Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann he is hard to beat. As a pianist, though, Barenboim was able to turn his hand to various composers from that era and beyond. Chopin's delicate, filigree Nocturnes have benefitted from many fine interpretations, and Barenboim's own cycle definitely belongs among the greats.
Liszt: Liebesträume etc
Daniel Barenboim proved himself a sensitive interpreter of the many fleeting moods within Franz Liszt's piano music. This disc features Barenboim in nuanced, eloquent performances of the Liebesträume (including the famous No.3), plus the Rêves d'Amour, Consolations, Sonetti del Petrarca and Rigoletto-Paraphrase.
Beethoven: complete Piano Sonatas
Barenboim has managed no fewer than four complete recorded cycles of the Beethoven piano sonatas, the last one recorded during the 2020 COVID lockdown. For our money, the pick of the bunch might be the second cycle he set down, for Deutsche Grammophon in 1984. Combining crisp articulation, poetic sensibility and dramatic power when required, this cycle will make a fine addition to any Beethoven piano sonata collection. If you're after a best recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas, you could do much worse.
Mozart: complete Piano Concertos
Like the Beethoven Piano Sonatas above, Mozart's 27 Piano Concertos constitute an extraordinary, endlessly absorbing body of work. And, once again like those sonatas, these works have been the subject of numerous recorded cycles. We've discussed some Mozart piano concerto best recordings, and you know who we put right at the top? Daniel Barenboim, playing with and conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, that's who.
'For the sheer exhilaration of discovering these extraordinary works as if for the very first time, Daniel Barenboim’s first integral cycle with the English Chamber Orchestra still takes pride of place,' says our reviewer Julian Haylock. 'Like a first-rate, page-turning novel, these remarkable recordings from the late 1960s and early ’70s are so alive and infectiously compelling that as each concerto ends one can’t wait to move on to the next instalment.'
Chopin: Piano Concertos
Staatskapelle Berlin / Andris Nelsons
Yes, more Chopin! In 2011, Barenboim turned in an impressive recording of Chopin's two piano concertos, with accompaniment from the Staatskapelle Berlin and conductor Andris Nelsons. 'Always authoritative, Barenboim is by turns graceful and gutsy, an especially good combination in the E minor Concerto,' said our reviewer John Allison. 'The Staatskapelle responds warmly, with wonderful woodwind solos. In the strongly accented, dancing finales to both concertos, Barenboim leads the way with playing of suppleness and wit.'
What are Daniel Barenboim's best recordings as conductor?
Elgar Symphony No.1
Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin had already brought us a much-praised recording of Elgar's Second Symphony when they turned their attention to Elgar 1. And, once again, conductor and orchestra proved to have this music (which to some might seem quintessentially English) at their fingertips.
'The opening march is a coiled spring; once the Allegro begins it has a surging, sometimes explosive energy,' commented our reviewer Erica Jeal. 'The brass climax towards the end of the movement is stretched out almost to breaking point, but the Staatskapelle players sustain it convincingly. The detail is always audible, even through the glowing full orchestra – the harp especially is a pleasure.'
Bruckner: Symphony No.5
Across three complete cycles of the symphonies - with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, and Staatskapelle Berlin – Barenboim has proved himself a highly able Bruckner conductor. The ability to pace out the sections of tension and release, and to map out the massive architecture of these symphonies convincingly, is key in Bruckner – and Barenboim, perhaps thanks to the logical rigour that has also made him such a commanding pianist, is equal to the task.
Our favourite single slice of Barenboim Bruckner is the recording of the huge, solemn Fifth Symphony that he made with the Berlin Phil. Every element of this huge symphony's austere power seems to be harnessed here, and the final fugal movement is overwhelming.
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Definitely a Bruckner Symphony No.5 best recording.
'If you like your Brahms big, beefy and beautiful, you’ll adore this set.' Thus wrote our reviewer Jessica Duchen about Barenboim's opulent, big-boned traversal of the Brahms symphonies with the Berlin Staatskapelle. 'Generally speaking, the four symphonies emerge here as vehicles for dramatic and often tragic expression. It is on some levels all about gorgeous playing from Barenboim’s Berlin Staatskapelle: ocean-deep string tone, heavenly horns, woodwind that yearn, converse and blend.
Barenboim’s tempos, Jessica continues, 'leisurely'. 'All the symphonies are treated with an expansive, broad-beamed approach. This has its advantages: the ear has time to savour the details and, of course, that sheer sonic magnificence.' A strong candidate for a best recording of the Brahms symphonies - especially for those who like their Brahms spacious and sonorous.
Another triumphant cycle with the Berlin Staatskapelle. Barenboim and his virtuosic orchestra prove themselves the equal of each one of Beethoven's nine endlessly varied and rewarding symphonies, from the Haydn-like sunniness and classicism of No.1, via the coiled tension and release of No.5 and onto the transcendent drama of No.9.
Saint-Saëns Symphony No.3 'Organ'
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Barenboim and his Chicago Symphony give us a wonderfully stirring account of Saint-Saëns's thrilling Symphony No.3, nicknamed the 'Organ' Symphony because of the dramatic role played by that instrument. Such a grandstanding work requires playing of great conviction, and the orchestra respond with aplomb: the final movement, in particular, is edge-of-seat stuff.
Interestingly, the organ part was dubbed in separately. This approach hasn't always worked on other 'Organ' recordings, but here the organ (that of Chartres Cathedral, since you ask) is worked in very skilfully, and you won't hear the joins. As exciting and beautifully executed rendition of the Saint-Saëns showboater as you could wish to hear.
Hommage à Boulez
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
They might not seem like born collaborators, but Daniel Barenboim and the late composer/conductor Pierre Boulez nurtured an artistic friendship across some 50 years. And this beautifully curated disc is a touching aural document of that friendship. Barenboim conducts his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in performances of a variety of Boulez compositions including Dérive 2 and Messagesquisse. Boulez himself, at a sprightly 85, conducts his Surrealist chamber cantata Le Marteau sans maître.
Pics: Getty Images
Steve has been an avid listener of classical music since childhood, and now contributes a variety of features to BBC Music’s magazine and website. He started writing about music as Arts Editor of an Oxford University student newspaper and has continued ever since, serving as Arts Editor on various magazines.