Daniel Barenboim: The big picture

The extraordinary response to Daniel Barenboim's Beethoven sonata cycle reveals that what audiences really want is to immerse themselves in the work of great artists

On Sunday afternoon, Daniel Barenboim ceremoniously closed the lid over the keyboard after playing Beethoven's last sonata. It was the end of an eight-concert marathon in which the pianist's complete Beethoven sonatas cycle had provoked unprecedented scenes at the Royal Festival Hall. A sold-out auditorium; chairs for those queuing for returns; a big screen at the ballroom floor to relay the concerts to the overflow; the unanimous standing ovation – an extraordinary mystique sprang up around this event.

"In all my years of concert-going, I've never seen anything like this," admits Marshall Marcus, head of music at the South Bank. Part of the ovation had to be for everything Barenboim represents. Not least, he's the co-founder (with the late Edward Said) of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, in which young Israeli and Arab musicians play side by side – an ideal that fits perfectly with Beethoven, a composer strongly associated with philosophies of freedom and brotherhood.

True, the hype went out of control. One article raved about the fact that he played the sonatas from memory, as if this hadn't been standard concert practice among far lesser mortals for a century. And those howling over the fact that the series was not recorded or broadcast can take comfort in Barenboim's recording of all the sonatas made in the late 1960s, which is rather more technically secure.

The whole certainly became blown up into more than the sum of its parts, and in turn, it is part of something bigger: an increasing hunger among audiences for "complete cycles" that offer intensive explorations of a single artist's work – whether it be Beethoven, Shakespeare or Wim Wenders.

Robert van Leer, head of music at the Barbican, suggests that that is because of the sheer scale of the involvement – if you put in extra effort, you reap extra rewards. "There's a lot of evidence," he says, "that the public like events that can take them to a different level of understanding." He points to the enthusiasm for the LSO's recent Sibelius cycle, and their Mahler symphonies conducted by Valery Gergiev: "These cycles can give you a broader view of a composer's work, an increased depth of insight and a more meaningful experience."

A series devoted to one director is always an attractive prospect in specialist cinemas. The BFI Southbank's programmes currently range from a celebration of Burt Lancaster to a run of films by the Chinese director Jia Zhangke, and a Wenders retrospective.

Directors seem more reliable a prospect than composers, some of whom lend themselves to this treatment better than others. Beethoven is usually top choice, but Bach is also a favourite: John Eliot Gardiner's series of the complete cantatas won a cult following, and audiences always flock to hear Andras Schiff or Angela Hewitt in the keyboard works – Hewitt is currently on a world tour with the complete Well-Tempered Klavier. Shostakovich and Bartok are popular with string quartets, since these cycles offer intense reflections of their composers' troubled lives. But presenting, say, all 104 Haydn symphonies would be a tall order.

Countless pianists, though, see staging a Beethoven cycle as the answer to all their problems – and few are truly capable of pulling it off. "You'd be amazed," says John Gilhooly, director of the Wigmore Hall, "by how often I'm approached by musicians who want to programme complete cycles when they're nowhere near ready to tackle them. More often than not, I have to close the door."

It's obvious why so many performers want their turn. If cycles are popular, ticket sales will be good; and if you programme eight concerts, you can sell tickets for the lot to the same people. With bicentenaries for Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt coming up, plus a double whammy for Mahler – the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2010 and the centenary of his death in 2011 – we can expect to hear too much of all of them.

But when the total-immersion experience works, it really works – and it can create a hunger that's self-perpetuating, as the Royal Shakespeare Company found in the case of its Complete Works Festival. The project drew together Shakespeare performers from all over the world, often using other languages. The company is now presenting the History plays as a series in its own right.

"It has become a journey that never ends," says the RSC's associate director Deborah Shaw. "Being 'complete' is just the starting point. The insight into the development of Shakespeare as a writer is full of beautiful surprises – as it unfolds, you live through his obsessions with him, and you learn what he wanted to put on stage at different times. It's more than you'd usually get out of a lifetime's theatre-going."

The festival attracted more than 500,000 visitors to Stratford, says Shaw, many booking for a stream of events – "they really bought into coming on the adventure with us." Now its productions have reached all the way from Warwickshire to Bogota and Damascus.

The concept of a series isn't new, but what is different is the fervour of the response. Is the preponderance of pap on television, undemanding musicals in the West End, and celebrity gossip almost everywhere driving people to high culture and something of substance? It's not impossible. Shaw thinks that there's a deeper issue at stake, too. Fluffy culture may be fine for fluffy times – but not for ours. "Michael Boyd, our artistic director, noticed this atmosphere right away, and his first season in 2004 offered a whole series of tragedies," she says. "Some people said, 'You're mad', but it tapped into something. We were a country going to war; it felt like a time for big plays and an examination of the human condition." The proof, she adds, was the sight of youngsters queuing round the block to get tickets for Hamlet. "There's a need to dig deeper, to find that culture is something worth working on. Britain became more political over the past decade, and there are big concerns facing us – wars, climate change, religious questions of the kind we used to think were disappearing."

Schiff, who has performed numerous series of Beethoven's sonatas, as well as Schubert's and quantities of Bach, has spoken of noticing a "congregational" atmosphere at those concerts. Shaw echoes this: "Where else do we all get together in large groups and share this kind of experience? The theatre and the concert hall are among very few places where it can happen. Maybe this is the new church." She's only half-joking.

If we need to make sense out of a senseless world, perhaps we turn instinctively to the arts to absorb wisdom from great creators who seem to have understood life better than we do. At Barenboim's Beethoven, everything came together: the right person in the right place at the right time, playing the right music, to an audience almost desperate to be part of it. Nobody could have left that last recital without feeling that they'd witnessed something resembling a historic moment.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk