★★★★½ Young Barenboim carries on the family business in an impressive Sydney recital.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House
April 17, 2016

Of the countless number of notes exciting, young violinist Michael Barenboim played for his Sydney recital debut not one seemed forced, false or out of place. He chose four formidable works for his programme – a Sonata and Partita by JS Bach culminating in the mighty Chaconne, alongside two of the most challenging more modern solo works in Bartók’s Sonata and a piece by the late Pierre Boulez. Throughout the 90 minutes the 31 year old never put a foot wrong, probing the thoughts behind the music and, in the case of the Bach, exposing the blood and bone beneath the intellect.

It’s not just that this young soloist is the son of musical royalty in pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim and Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova, this is a violinist that this reviewer believes is destined to rank alongside the likes of Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. His gorgeous, burnished tone is supported by a seemingly effortless bowing arm, spot-on fingering and an intelligent instinct for nuance. Like both of those musical giants he is unfussy, eschewing effects and mannerisms for the clarity of the musical message, and he brings to bear an understanding and expressive depth to his material.

As this programme showed he is equally at home in the 18th and 20th centuries. It started with Bach’s majestic G Minor Sonata, BWV1001 with its two gorgeous slow movements bookending an extraordinary fugue which Bach, and Barenboim, manage to make sound like a duet at times. The madcap torrent of the Presto finale paved the way for Bartók’s take on these solo Bach works. Commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin in 1944, it was composed at a time when Bartók was ill and down on his luck. It was the last complete work he composed and into it he seemed to pour his life’s work. It starts off with Bartók’s take on the great Chaconne – Bach with paprika – but also features the composer’s trademark weaving of folk melodies and rhythms into music which pushes the tonal envelope to the limits.

Boulez’s Anthemes 1 may not have a direct connection to either Bach or Bartók but it nevertheless exploits techniques from both composers, from the pizzicato and “insect” night music bowing techniques of the Hungarian, to the Baroque master’s use of rapid shifts of register to create a sense of polyphony. Barenboim is rapidly establishing a solo career away from his regular gig as concertmaster of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, established by his father to bring together Jewish and Arab musicians from the Middle East. He worked closely with Boulez, performing several works including Anthemes 1 and 2 at the composer’s 90th birthday last year, and played the electronic Anthemes 2 at the Proms in 2012. On top of that he also leads the Erlenbusch Quartet.

He seems unfazed by his rich musical heritage. “Your parents can make you practise, but they can’t make you want to be an artist,” he says. He has an easy manner with his audience. He didn’t say anything, his playing said it all. But the little accidents – the dropped programmes, the kicked over wine glasses – were greeted with a wry raise of the eyebrow and a smile. This young Barenboim is definitely an impressive chip off the old block.