Daniel Barenboim, Royal Festival Hall, London

Pray silence for Daniel, a peacemaker at the piano: His Beethoven cycle is being praised as 'the musical event of the decade'. But are we applauding Barenboim the man or Barenboim the player?
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Towards the end of the interval of last Saturday's performance by Daniel Barenboim, I saw something that summed up the atmosphere of his eight-concert cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas more tellingly than the star-studded audience, buzzing box office and ecstatic ovations. As the auditorium filled up, a smartly dressed woman in her late fifties paused to gaze at Barenboim's Steinway on her way to her place in the five rows of extra seats on the stage, then dipped down and quickly patted the padded leather of the piano stool.

Now, cynics might say that this was classical music's answer to throwing one's knickers at an ageing rock star. But the expression on the woman's face was closer to that of a child confidently pinning a prayer to the hem of a favourite saint. For Barenboim's Beethoven, sometimes eloquent, sometimes incoherent, sometimes thrilling, sometimes clumsy, has assumed the aura of a religious event: raptly received and bathed in a golden haze of charisma.

There are many reasons to celebrate Barenboim. For his dynamic conducting of Wagner and Brahms; for his demonstration that art can have an effect greater than solace or stimulation; for providing, in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the only happy ending to any story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; for playing piano sonatas to an attentive audience of children, young people, middle-aged people and old people when we are told that classical music is dead, irrelevant, exclusive, and, yes, for his charisma too. Had Maurizio Pollini attempted this cycle in under a month, which he would not, the house might be full, but not this full. My point? That as many people were there because of the man as were there because of the music.

This is no problem, in itself. Even great music needs ambassadors. Barenboim is better placed than most to understand Beethoven's rough idealism, his egotism and his outsider status, and instinctively recognised these qualities when he recorded the sonatas for EMI 40 years ago. Whether he can still express this, and later layers of understanding through his fingertips, after a life spent more on the podium than at the piano, is another matter.

Instead of programming the 32 sonatas in chronological order, Barenboim selected works from Beethoven's early, middle and late periods for each recital, grouping them thematically. And in the fifth and sixth recitals of the series this exposed the weaknesses in his technique. Struggle he can do. Sorrow too. But wistfulness? Merriment? The simple pleasure of physical dexterity? The earliest sonata in these two recitals was written by a callow pupil of Haydn, the last by a man revered by Schubert. Yet Barenboim, now 65, favoured a uniformly Romantic approach and an almost Lisztian range of dynamics; opening the Sonata in E flat Quasi una fantasia at a barely audible pianississimo, painting violent chiaroscuro effects in the Allegro molto e vivace, stretching the Adagio to sublime limits as he recovered a half-forgotten modulation, and decking the Rondo with coruscating sforzandi.

Beethoven sounds difficult in Barenboim's hands – bulky, complex, more symphonic than pianistic, which fits our image of the frowning brow of the mature composer and provides useful cover for smudged notes. But it is important to remember the pliancy, percussiveness and narrow dynamic range of the smaller keyboards of Beethoven's youth when listening to music written before he was deaf and miserable with lonely brilliance. Here the stretto passages suffered from Barenboim's tendency to rush at the trickiest figures, while the flamboyant Presto of Sonata No 7, the wry Scherzo of Sonata No 15 and the boisterous broken octaves of Sonata No 3 were slicked over with liberal applications of the damper pedal.

Sonata No 24, written by a man in love, was more brilliant than intimate in its effect, the carefully delineated textures of No 21, the Waldstein, again occluded by a wash of pedal. Only in the long, grave melody of the last movement of Sonata No 27, Opus 90, written in 1814, and the forensic philosophical journey of Sonata No 30, Opus 109, written in 1820, did I feel that Barenboim's temperament and that of the music had thoroughly coalesced. Both works are big enough to support dynamic extremes, especially at the slow burn chosen by a man who conducts Wagner, and Barenboim's hard, glassy sound gradually mellowed into copper. Details of articulation, even wrong notes, mattered less than the weight of the voicing and the wide horizon.

For what Barenboim lacks in precision and dexterity is balanced by his stamina and empfindung (feeling), and of the eight sonatas I heard him play, only Opus 109 was met with the stillness every performer yearns for: those heavy seconds of silent reflection before the applause.

Is Barenboim's Beethoven Cycle "the musical event of the decade"? No. Not when you recall John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Pilgrimage, the last performances of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Claudio Abbado's Parsifal, or Barenboim's own performance in Ramallah with the West-Eastern Divan. And not when you consider how much more insight he brings to Beethoven with a baton in his hand. After all, as the great Igor Markevitch observed on hearing him play as a child, Barenboim is "really a conductor". Hopefully, there will have been more silent reflection and less hyperbole by the time you read this review. But for those of you with tickets for his final recital, which closes with the C minor Sonata of 1822, please count to 10 before you leap to your feet.

Need to know

Conductor, pianist and outspoken critic of the state of Israel, Daniel Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires in 1942.

Studying first with his mother, then his father, he made his debut as a pianist at the age of seven. In 1952, the family emigrated to Israel, taking Barenboim to Salzburg in 1954, where he took part in Igor Markevitch's conducting classes and played for Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Armed with a letter of recommendation from Furtwängler – "the 11-year-old Barenboim is a phenomenon" – he made his London, Paris, Rome and Vienna debuts while still a teenager, and studied harmony and composition with Nadia Boulanger.

Already identified as a natural conductor by Markevitch, Barenboim directed Mozart's piano concertos from the keyboard before making his official debut as a conductor in 1967, forging a reputation for adventurous programming in Paris, Chicago and Berlin, and for his powerful interpretations of Wagner in Bayreuth.

A chance meeting with the late Palestinian academic Edward Said in 1999 led to an intense friendship, a book of conversations, 'Parallels and Paradoxes' (Bloomsbury), and their founding of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose young players are drawn from Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt. AP

Daniel Barenboim's Beethoven Cycle concludes this afternoon (0871-663 2509)