Barenboim in Schubert: Journey’s End

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Daniel Barenboim (piano). Royal Festival Hall, 2.6.2015 (MB)

Piano Sonata no.16 in A minor, D 845
Piano Sonata no.21 in B-flat major, D 960


Daniel Barenboim’s final Schubert recital went out on a relative high, although some of the frustrations of earlier performances remained. First up was the mysteriously neglected A minor Sonata, D 845. I cannot recall ever having heard it ‘live’ before, although I may be forgetting something. The first movement highlighted Barenboim’s new instrument’s capacity for great timbral contrast between registers, heard especially strongly in unisons which sounded as if they might have been played upon different manuals. For me, the contrast was simply too great; others, however, will feel differently, and taste clearly plays an important role here. The spirit of Lieder, however, was welcome indeed to my ears, a spirit on this occasion both sad and fierce. Once the movement had really got going – it took a little while – Barenboim’s dynamic sense of form won out. That was certainly present also in the Andante poco mosso, albeit in a gentler, perhaps indeed subtler fashion. Barenboim might have been said to offer a masterclass in ensuring that variations emerged consequentially one from another. Voicing helped greatly in that respect – arguably aided, or at least underlined, by the instrument itself. For instance, repeated notes in inner parts seemed to acquire the persistence of their cousins – or should that be nephews? – in Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ Prelude. Thematic transformations, on the other hand, edged us tellingly close to Beethoven’s variation form. The surprises of the Scherzo seemed to cast a backward glance towards Haydn, although the sensibility remained impeccably Romantic, unease never vanquished. Its Trio offered an almost – I stress ‘almost’ – soporific glimpse of another realm; here, as in one performance in the previous recital, a Schubertian brook seemed to lull its tragic victim. The finale, taken without a break, proved something of a disappointment after such fine playing. There is a case for it to be unrelenting, but should it be unvariegated? That is more difficult to maintain. Despite considerable dynamic contrasts, Schubert’s modulations seemed to count for curiously little.

It would have been an odd Schubert series that did not conclude with the posthumous B-flat Sonata. Much of Barenboim’s performance I found highly persuasive. The opening of the first movement offered great clarity, married to a more highly ingratiating or at least ‘traditional’ touch – especially, as so often in these recitals, when playing softly. The left-hand E natural sounded full of expectation, auguring well for what ensued. Barenboim took the movement relatively swiftly, though not unreasonably so; in any case, he was far from unyielding. There was real contrast of moods too, some material surprisingly bright-eyed. Sadness was more apparent in the development, although that remained tendency rather than victory. The recapitulation brought vehemence, even pride. I cannot recall having heard it sound so close in spirit to (and yet still distinct from) Beethoven. Whatever I might have thought about that in the abstract, it worked. The brightness of the higher treble registers proved something of an irritant, though. The slow movement – and here it was certainly slow, though always in motion – was imbued with a highly developed sense of drama. (Barenboim is, after all, a great Wagnerian.) It proved fuller of contrast than often, and quite revealingly so. Again, the differences between instrumental registers were sometimes a little too stark for my taste, but Barenboim’s voicing of the bass line and sensitivity to its harmonic implications made up for that. The Scherzo again signalled the spirit of something close to Beethoven, albeit modified by an undercurrent of desperation. Its Trio sounded as much as morbid continuation as contrast. Barenboim’s view of the finale proved forthright yet variegated, again showing both kinship with and difference from Beethoven. Sometimes, however, I am afraid his pianism moved firmly into the heavy-handed category. Or was it the instrument again? It was not unduly disruptive, but recalled some of the problems as well as the highpoints of this series as a whole.

Mark Berry

Leave a Comment