Daniel Barenboim, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

Daniel Barenboim, the pianist, is making a short European tour before Barenboim, the conductor, takes on no fewer than 10 Wagner operas at the Berlin Staatsoper next month. As if in recognition of his titanic musical achievements, Barenboim – one-time protégé of Sir John Barbirolli – is given a hero's welcome in Manchester before he even plays a note. Bowing puppet-like, right and left, to the rafters and to the back stalls, he seems almost reluctant to sit down at the piano. When he finally does, it is Beethoven that fills the first half of the concert, familiar enough territory for the distinguished performer and for listeners acquainted with Barenboim's benchmark recordings of the complete cycle.

Already in the mind is the list of half-remembered felicitous touches and tiny gestures that mark out Barenboim's keen understanding of musical processes, measured and searching. If the outer two movements of the D major "Pastoral" Sonata seemed slower and more purposeful, that was to the advantage of the inner accompaniments, where distinctively articulated voice-leading threw the spotlight firmly on to the dramatic issues. The two central movements were elegantly polished, the legato chords and staccato bass at the opening of the Andante beautifully gauged. But in the restrained spontaneity of the lyrical opening of the final Rondo, the only obviously "pastoral" sound in the sonata, the mood was more crocodile file than country ramble.

Both in this early sonata and the late A major Sonata Op 101, a touch more tonal warmth would have been welcome, along with a greater degree of affection. But in the technical and interpretative demands of the exacting A major sonata, Barenboim's lifelong experience of the awkwardness of some of Beethoven's writing solved the problem of finding a tempo that matches an unfolding structure with expressive delivery. If neither sonata was quite free of minute blemishes, nor as magically alive as one might have wished, and even a shade wooden at times, there was no faulting Barenboim's studied attention to detail, which in turn inspired palpably concentrated attention from his large audience in the Bridgewater Hall.

Barenboim has apparently been enjoying rediscovering his South American roots with forays into Argentinian tangos and Brazilian numbers. The second half of his recital was devoted to the Spanish repertoire he has more recently recorded, the first two books of Iberia by Isaac Albéniz. In these vignettes of Andalusian towns, districts or local features he evoked the colour and poetry of the Spanish atmosphere with a genuine feeling for the score's subtle nuances.

Never repetitious sounding, even in the lengthier pieces, Barenboim was brilliantly effective in the liberal ornamentation, the insistent rhythms, the quasi-orchestral passages and the picturesque shifts of dynamic levels. His fluid musicality and tonal imagination captured the impressionist qualities of the shimmering "El Puerto" and pointed up the folk-song character of "Almeria". Indeed, the vivid stage-picture that he presented of "El Corpus en Sevilla", with its evocative drum beats and its bells, made me want to rush off and buy his recording.