Barenboim Not Quite at His Best in Schubert but Still Offering Much to Ponder

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Daniel Barenboim (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 29.5.2015 (MB)

Piano Sonata in B major, D 575
Piano Sonata in G major, D 894
Piano Sonata in C minor, D 958

After a somewhat disappointing opening recital in this series of four, Daniel Barenboim made a stronger impression, if still somewhat short of his best, in the second. Perhaps the fuss over the not-so-new piano had subsided; perhaps he had become more used to it; at any rate, I noticed it less, and indeed, especially in the closing C minor sonata, heard more of its virtues. Schubert may not actually benefit so much as Beethoven from such back-to-back treatment, but there is certainly much we can learn from hearing many of his piano sonatas over a week.

The B major Sonata opened in forthright fashion. Chords often – and it is difficult to say how much of this was owed to performance and how much to the instrument – sounded Lisztian; perhaps the key led one’s ears in that direction too. Barenboim rendered Schubert’s dotted rhythms and harmonies generative, but the performance often lacked warmth, proving most compelling at its most withdrawn. Transitions in this first movement could prove stiff, but that is partly a matter of the work itself. Liszt again came to mind as a potential destination for the Andante; I was put in mind of the slow movement of the B minor Sonata. Barenboim communicated an ambivalent view of the Allegretto, far from carefree. Here, hesitations made better musical sense than they had two nights earlier; there was a good sense of the exploratory, especially with respect to tonality. The Trio seemed to fuse post-Mozartian drama with a rusticity that had its roots in Haydn. Schubert’s finale emerged almost as the proper scherzo, rhythm very much a Beethovenian driving force.

The opening chords of the G major Sonata showed a Schubert more recognisable as the composer of the songs, in many of which Barenboim has proved an outstanding pianist. His weighting enabled Schubert’s different voicing to show his difference from Beethoven in the G major Piano Concerto. The filigree and harmonies of the Impromptus were winningly suggested too. Wanderings or digressions – according to taste and/or æsthetic – were characterful and, for the most part, well integrated. The Andante was nicely poised, definitely ‘late’, casting an early neo-Classical gaze back to Mozart. I still, however, could not help but think what gains there would have been from the greater warmth of a Bösendorfer. The episodes erupted, but did they sometimes overshadow the prospect of a longer line? Is there indeed a longer line here? Whatever the answers to that, Barenboim’s playing at its most hushed imparted a due sense of wonder. In the third movement, he sounded a born Schubertian, lilt and harmonic motion perfectly judged. Occasional smudged chords mattered far less than they had on Wednesday, since the sense of the work was more strongly apparent. The Trio offered further beautiful pianissimo intimacies, although I sometimes wondered whether less rubato might have proved more. The finale continued in similar vein, sometimes a little fussy, but certainly making me rethink the work.

The opening of the C minor Sonata showed commonality yet also difference not only with Beethoven but also the Mozart of KV 457. Concision (relatively so, at least, for the composer) certainly seemed inherited from both, albeit in intriguing, generative dialectic with a tendency toward expansiveness. The Adagio received a notably – far from inappropriately so – Beethovenian reading, above all in the integrity with which Barenboim voiced the opening theme. Minor key passages proved especially dark-hued, characterising the movement as strongly as hoped-for consolation in A-flat major. Sometimes, Barenboim seemed a little unyielding, but there was undoubted purpose to his reading. An enigmatic Menuetto – no bad thing in itself – sounded a little too distended at times, but strength of purpose was resumed in the finale, a furious dance of death, which yet proved properly variegated. Here, the colours of the instrument’s bass register came into their own; at one point, I readily imagined growling cellos and basses. Liszt again seemed more of a guiding spirit than one often hears. Much, then, to ponder, if not always, at least in my case, quite to agree with.

Mark Berry

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