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Moved by Mysterious Forces

Daniel Barenboim is a classical music brand name and has been for a long time. Next season, he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his stage debut (he was 7). He has led a glamorous life as a pianist and conductor. The great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler admired him as a child pianist. In 1967, he married phenomenal British cellist Jacqueline du Pre, lately back in the public consciousness because of the film “Hilary and Jackie” and Emily Watson’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of her career, which was terminated tragically by multiple sclerosis. He cavorted with Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, who were once dubbed the “Kosher Nostra.”

Barenboim has conquered most musical capitals and held important orchestra posts in London and Paris. Today he is music director of the Chicago Symphony and Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden. He is a frequent guest of the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics, at the Salzburg and Bayreuth festivals. His discography is enormous, and it continues to grow--even in an economic climate in which few other conductors, no matter how prominent, are able to record standard repertory with the most expensive big orchestras.

Yet for all that, it is probably safe to say that music lovers have little sense of who Barenboim actually is. His nationality is enigmatic. He was born and grew up in Buenos Aires; he moved with his parents, Russian Jews, to Israel when he was 10. Mostly, Barenboim seems a citizen of the world--even his accent is unidentifiable, a little of this and a little of that. His personality is hard for a public to pin down. In interviews and in his memoirs, he can be maddeningly impersonal. In “Hilary and Jackie,” the filmmaker saw him superficially as a pompous nerd.

And as a performer, Barenboim is just as maddeningly hard to pin down. There is a genuine grandness to his conducting and piano playing, but that can translate into bland generalizing or something more impressively epic and penetrating (he is a very fine Bruckner conductor, for instance). He is a good detail man, but some find his Mozart and Bach picky, while others call it revelatory. When he succeeded the fiery Georg Solti as music director of the Chicago Symphony in 1992, he did not quickly wow city or orchestra, but he has proved a survivor and is slowly winning hearts. And clearly his record company is willing to invest in him to an unusual degree--often exhibiting Barenboim as both pianist and conductor on the same disc.

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Herewith, in the hopes that a mosaic of opinions might help illuminate this enigmatic musician, The Times’ music reviewers consider the most recent flurry of Barenboim discs.

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BRAHMS: Violin Concerto, Violin Sonata No. 3

Maxim Vengerov, violin; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Daniel Barenboim, conductor, piano

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Teldec Classics

The covers of many Barenboim Chicago Symphony CDs display massive Chicago architecture in black-and-white, but this one is more about individual star power. Inside the booklet, Barenboim and the powerhouse violinist from Siberia are splayed across the staples in a two-panel photograph in which they sport cocky fedoras and arm-wrestle. Both pictures are perfect metaphors for these gigantic, brawny performances. Vengerov’s wonderfully engrossing tone and rhapsodic playing couldn’t be grander or more generously emotional, but both concerto and sonata are almost crushed under the weight of imposingly portentous tempos and granitic accompaniment.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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