November 18, 2004
Different performances really can be different: Barenboim plays the Emperor concerto

I am a fanatical, not to say pathological, collector of different CD performances of the same favourite classical music pieces. This morning, prodded by an emailer, I was checking out different versions of the various Beethoven piano concertos.

To this end, yesterday, I put on the Barenboim/Klemperer recording of the Emperor Concerto, number five, which I remember liking a great deal when I last listened to it.

Yesterday, however, when I played it again, I did not like it nearly so much. Barenboim's piano phrasing seemed relentlessly wrong, even ham-fingered. I did not enjoy the performance at all. How very odd. How come I used to like this performance so much and now liked it so little?

BarenboimEmperor.jpgAlthough after playing it I did put the CD back in its case, I did not return the case back to its place in my CD shelves, and this morning I realised the mistake I had made. I had not been playing the Barenboim/Klemperer version of this piece. I had been playing the later version done by Barenboim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic from the keyboard, with Klemperer nowhere to be seen or heard. I made this mistake because both performances, in the packages I have of them, come in a box of three CDs, because both had "Barenboim" on the spine, because both are from EMI and logoed in the same way, and because the spines of both are the same EMI red colour. I am now listening to the real Barenboim/Klemperer performance, and it is very bit as good as I remembered it as being.

This episode tells me two things.

First, there are limits even to what Daniel Barenboim can do, musically. Maybe he can play the piano part of the Emperor perfectly, while simultaneously conducting an accompanying symphony orchestra, but on this particular occasion, in my opinion, he definitely did not manage to do so satisfactorily, let alone as well as he did with Klemperer.

And second, I was reassured that different performances of the same piece really can be so very different. Possessing as I do so very many multiple copies of different favourite pieces, I am often, frankly, unable to hear much difference, and fear that I have wasted tons of money and yards of space by purchasing pointlessly duplicated pieces which might as well be straight copies of the same disc for all the difference they make. But here was a self-inflicted blind test of my own abilities as a listener, and I passed. My own ears, even when misinformed, did not let me down. I spotted a big difference even when I thought that the two versions I was actually comparing were not two versions at all, but one and the same. So hurrah for me. I can do this! And hurrah for all those different versions of things, because they too may really be different. (See this posting for another such comparison, this time between two different performances by different soloists of the Brahms violin concerto.)

Of course what you really want is for the different versions not to be different from each other by being good or bad (as was the case with these two Barenboim performances – and with those Brahms performances also, see above), but by being good in one way, or good in another. Fast and good or slow and good. "Classical" and good, or "romantic" and good. And as it happens, that emailer I referred to above did alert me to just such a contrast.

However, blogging is blogging, and the rule to follow is: one thing at a time. I am not Neville Cardus, and must not presume upon the attention span of my readers by continuing a posting even when an obvious opportunity for a break presents itself. So, more on this topic later, maybe, I hope.

Late: and the moral of the above, put next to this, is that opinions on these things can differ wildly. Maybe I should have another go at listening to that Berlin performance.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:05 PM
Category: Classical music