It was brazen, instinctive, impassioned. It was a performance that divided the critics. It was, in short, everything we have come to expect from one of the world’s most celebrated and dynamic musicians.

Daniel Barenboim’s impromptu speech at the opening weekend of this summer’s Proms, in which he voiced his concerns about nationalism and “isolationist tendencies”, never mentioned Brexit. But his warning that “the real evil of the world can only be fought with a humanism that keeps us all together” was widely interpreted as a plea for European unity. “And I’m going to show you that I really mean it!” he said, before launching the Staatskapelle Berlin into a spirited encore of “Land of Hope and Glory”.

It enraged a few but it should have surprised no one. Barenboim, 74, has always been as happy speaking from the podium as he is conducting, his diminutive (now rather shapely) stature belying his stamina. His defining achievement, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra — an ensemble of musicians from across the Middle East that he co-founded with the Palestinian academic Edward Said in 1999 — has cultural and political renown.

I ask him, sometime later, if music shouldn’t have spoken for itself that night — after all, he had just conducted a German orchestra through works by Edward Elgar and Harrison Birtwistle, two of Britain’s greatest composers. “I don’t know, it felt very spontaneous, that’s all I can tell you,” he replies. “I felt it was the right forum and it had to do with music and it had to do with culture.” Barenboim claims the speech was misunderstood as an attack on Brexit; he is now based in Berlin but notes (offering it as a justification of sorts) the “great affection” he has always felt for the UK.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1942 to Jewish-Russian immigrants, Barenboim revealed a preternatural talent for music at an early age. In 1950 his family moved to Israel and, at the age of 10, he made his international piano debut in Vienna and Rome. Invitations followed from the concert halls of Paris, New York, Salzburg. But it was London, in the 1960s, where he experienced his “first real adult musical experiences” and where his conducting career really took flight.

Barenboim’s affection for the UK is also, inevitably, linked to memories of his first wife, the cellist Jacqueline du Pré. He will return to London this month to conduct two concerts in aid of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, marking the 30th anniversary of her death from the disease. “My main interest in this context is that enough funds are raised so that there is a push for research worldwide,” he explains. “We need two very clear aims in research: one is to find ways to diagnose it quicker, and the other is to find a cure.”

Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré in the 1960s © Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I ask him to paint a picture of their life together in the late 1960s, and he starts at the beginning. “It’s a very banal story, not the usual, romantic ‘They met at the ball, and looked in [each other’s] eyes’, not at all,” he says. “The first time I spoke to her [in 1966], I telephoned her because I had quite a bad attack of mononucleosis, glandular fever.” He was scheduled to perform with du Pré the following year, and friends, tired of hearing him complain, told him he ought to speak to her: she had suffered a much worse bout of the illness.

“So I phoned her up, and she said, ‘Oh, I’m very happy to talk to you, is it something about the concert?’ I said, ‘Actually, no, I have glandular fever and I was told you had it much worse than me . . . ’ and that was it.”

They met a few months later in London, at the house of the pianist Fou Ts’ong, a mutual friend (and Yehudi Menuhin’s son-in-law). “There was chamber music being played and before we spoke we sat down to play together — we played a Brahms sonata — and understood each other musically, perfectly, and then outside of music too.” She was “a unique musician”, he continues. “She was not exactly very knowledgeable about things to do with music in a musicological or scientific way but she had an uncanny instinct and quickness of brain that was mind-boggling. She would see a piece for the first time and she was able to not just play the notes but get to the essence of it.”

The couple married in 1967 and were feted as darlings of the classical music world. Their story had youth, glamour, passion — and their romance was compared with that of Robert and Clara Schumann. But within two years, du Pré had become unwell. “She had a very simple and minor operation, totally without any difficulty, but for which she had a general anaesthetic, and when she woke up she did not have any feeling in certain parts of her body,” Barenboim explains.

Soon she was unable to judge the weight of her bow and, by the time she was diagnosed with MS in 1973, she had given up public performance altogether. Were du Pré diagnosed today, he says, her prospects would have been better (a cure remains elusive but the vast majority of sufferers now have 12 disease-modifying treatments to choose from) but her condition continued to deteriorate until her death in 1987 at 42.

Like other public figures who have died young, du Pré’s character is now laced with a sense of fateful vulnerability, and it’s difficult to gauge how much of this has been applied in retrospect. Watching footage of her performances, I am struck by her physicality — the sheer strength and vitality with which she handles the cello — and by her levity and humour.

Christopher Nupen’s short film The Trout endures as an important, and charming, group portrait of talented young musicians on the cusp of greatness. It follows Barenboim and du Pré, together with Itzhak Perlman, Zubin Mehta and Pinchas Zukerman, during their rehearsals and live performance of Schubert’s Trout Quintet as part of the festival of South Bank Summer Music (of which Barenboim was artistic director) in 1969. On stage they project a knotted intensity but behind the scenes we see them giddy and ebullient, swapping instruments and hamming it up, until Mehta exclaims, “Do you know that there’s a serious public waiting outside?” and they all fall about laughing.

Some years later, du Pré, by now debilitated by advancing MS, reflected on the occasion with almost heart-breaking poignancy: “We were five friends, united by our youth and the pleasure we had in making music together. When we played ‘The Trout’ it would have evaporated, as all concerts do, but Christopher Nupen saw a film in it and suddenly there was a statement of our happiness for ever, and when I see the film it gives me back something of that feeling which will always be so precious to me.” 

The Jacqueline du Pré Tribute concerts return Barenboim to the South Bank, and he will be joined by his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the young Austrian-Persian cellist Kian Soltani to perform Strauss’s Don Quixote and Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. I express surprise that Elgar’s Cello Concerto is not on the programme — du Pré’s performance of this piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1962, at the age of 17, thrust her into the limelight, and its tragic beauty would become almost synonymous with her life and work — but Barenboim says he would find it “emotionally too much of a burden” to perform.

“I remember [the great Spanish cellist] Pablo Casals, who was already quite old, when [du Pré] was to play [the piece] at the Puerto Rico Festival, told me, ‘Oh, I’m so looking forward to this, you must know — nobody has played this concerto as well as Jacqueline until now, and nobody will play like her after,’” he says. Casals was reportedly moved to tears.

Towards the end of du Pré’s life, Barenboim moved to France to become director of the Orchestre de Paris, and it was here in the early 1980s that he started a relationship — and then a family — with Elena Bashkirova, who would become his second wife. Whether out of respect for Barenboim or sympathy for du Pré, his absence from her later life went unreported by the press and he has, in the past, expressed gratitude for their restraint.

Barenboim was by now a towering figure in the music world. He became a regular guest conductor at Bayreuth and, in the 1990s, music director at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera. But his success as a pianist, especially as an interpreter of Mozart and Beethoven (since his first complete Beethoven sonata cycle in Tel Aviv in 1960 he has performed it often around the world) has never wavered.

Daniel Barenboim conducting, circa 1970 © Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

When I ask whether the pressures on young musicians — the demands of agents, the need for self-promotion — are more challenging than they used to be, he responds with a gentle put-down. “The most important and challenging thing for a young musician — much more important than what you ask, whether it’s more challenging because of the press — is to live with the schizophrenia of extreme modesty and extreme self-assurance, and this has not changed.” He defines this modesty as the respect one must show for the work of composers, but adds: “You need to have ambition, you don’t sit at home and play and the world rings the doorbell, but the ambition has to ideally be at least 10 per cent less than the talent. When the ambition is greater than the talent, you kill the talent, you choke it.”

And do you approach, say, Beethoven’s piano sonatas, with the same sense of modesty that you did as a young man? “No question — in many ways more, because I think I know a bit more about it.”

He offers the recent example of a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23 that he gave with the Staatskapelle in Paris. “The first time I played with an orchestra, I played this concerto. It was in 1950, 67 years ago, and you won’t believe me, I promise you, there were little things — I can’t say I had a revolutionary new idea of the piece — but there were little connections, little shades, little ways that a certain harmonic change spoke to me in a different way. I was still discovering things.”

Since the creation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Barenboim has focused a great deal of his time and attention on the Middle East. The project developed out of the belief that musical dialogue between estranged peoples could pave the way to social dialogue. “The fundamental principle of this orchestra was quite simple,” he wrote in his 2008 book Everything is Connected. “Once the young musicians agreed on how to play even just one note together they would not be able to look at each other in the same way again.”

The orchestra has no political agenda but Barenboim has himself been outspoken at times. On a visit to Ramallah in June, for a concert to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, he said Israel was losing “all sense of decency and humanity” because of its occupation of lands earmarked for a Palestinian state, and he reiterates his point to me: “I find that the occupation by Israel is at the centre of the inability to solve the conflict. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a political conflict, nor a military conflict, it is a human conflict,” he adds. Yet, his faith in the orchestra and young musicians of this region is undimmed.

Last month, the Pierre Boulez Saal — a new chamber music hall attached to the recently opened Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin — opened its first full season with the premiere of a work by Benjamin Attahir, a 28-year-old French-Lebanese composer. “Now is our first season and already most of it’s sold out, and I don’t know how to explain that. I think it’s somehow caught the imagination of the public,” Barenboim says. 

The hall is dedicated to Pierre Boulez, the avant-garde French musician and friend of Barenboim’s who died last year, and will provide space for the academy’s 90 students, all from the Middle East. It promotes modern and contemporary music, with challenging programmes likely to find more enthusiastic audiences in Germany than elsewhere. And yet Barenboim — restless, inquiring, rigorous as ever — has hardly neglected the core classical repertoire.

© Gabby Laurent

“I discovered Elgar with Jacqueline in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I did a lot of it,” he says. “Then I went to Paris, Chicago, Berlin and I was doing other kinds of repertoire, but little by little the memories came back.” Barenboim recalls British orchestras’ “complex relationship” with Elgar but says he has found “the ideal orchestra for this music” in the Staatskapelle. “They have a sense of the spirit of the time, which is Mahler and company, and they have understood the peculiarity of Elgar’s own personality.”

Barenboim may be slower but he has not lost his vigour. When I remark that many in the UK consider the patriotic fervour of Elgar’s music mildly embarrassing, our conversation returns to the theme of rising nationalism, and I wonder aloud whether he ever worries that his efforts at unity may be considered futile. “I’ve come to a point in my life where I don’t judge what I do by whether it is generally accepted or not. I think I’ve done some things that were silly, and they were applauded,” he laughs, “and some things I might have done very well, and they were not.”

Jacqueline du Pré Tribute Concerts, Royal Festival Hall, London, October 28-29;

Laura Battle is deputy editor of House & Home

Portraits by Gabby Laurent; Getty Images

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