Barenboim’s Exploration of Schubert Piano Sonatas Continues

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Daniel Barenboim (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 31.5.2015 (MB)

Piano Sonata no.7 in E-flat major, D 568
Piano Sonata no.14 in A minor, D 784
Piano Sonata no.17 in D major, D 850


The third in Daniel Barenboim’s Schubert series of four recitals offered a similarly mixed picture to the first two, albeit with more of the virtues of the second than the shortcomings of the first. This Sunday afternoon recital began with the E-flat major Sonata, D 568. The first movement perhaps tilted more towards the Allegro than the moderato part of Allegro moderato. A tendency to pull the material around detracted from Barenboim’s general sense of purpose, but that need not be exaggerated. It is a fascinating movement, not least when one knows its original form in D-flat major; Schubert’s expansiveness deserves cherishing (for the most part), but the development should not seem as if it were a digression, as occasionally it did here. What Andante molto means is anyone’s guess, but Barenboim’s far from slow tempo convinced, generally telling but occasionally puzzling rubato notwithstanding. It was a ‘Romantic’ rather than a ‘Classical’ reading, but one with a keen ear for harmonic surprise and, for the most part, for proximity to song. The ‘Menuetto’ is really a scherzo; here Barenboim, not without reason, brought Schubert closer to Beethoven, although I could not help but wonder whether a still greater touch of directness might have helped. The finale, to my ears (and eyes) poised intriguingly between Mozart and Chopin, tended more towards the latter.

The A minor Sonata, D 784, followed. Pianist and – I suspect – instrument gave a fine impression indeed of tragic bell-tolling at the opening. This was a dark, even grim reading throughout; the sense of tragedy might have been leavened by post-Mozartian glimpses of another, better, perhaps unattainable world, but rarely, if at all, on this occasion. Indeed, throughout the series, I have been a little surprised by the lack, although not absence, of kinship with Mozart, given Barenboim’s status as one of our greatest Mozart players and conductors. Perhaps the strange ‘back to the nineteenth century’ aspect of his new instrument is a factor here. Ghostly octaves nevertheless seemed to peer into the future: Bruckner, perhaps even Mahler. Songfulness was the order of the day in the Andante; indeed, I fancied that I could hear a Schubertian brook welcoming its tragic (anti-)hero for his final bow. The finale fared better when the playing was hushed rather than vehement; once again, the instrument’s thinness of tone at forte and above had me longing for a Bösendorfer. There was, however, no gainsaying the clarity achieved.

The D major Sonata, D 850, offered much to admire, although not without distractions. At times, the first movement threatened to run away with itself; a regular pulse never quite emerged. Syncopations did their markedly non-Beethovenian work in the Con moto movement that follows; here, Barenboim’s subtlety of touch and keen sense of harmonic preparation and resolution proved revealing indeed. Those tendencies continued into the Scherzo, with a duly disconcerting sense of harmonic relaxation achieved in the Trio. Schubert’s relationship towards Mozart might have been more profoundly explored in the closing Rondo; although much of the composer’s writing here is more elaborate, Barenboim did not entirely escape a tendency towards fussiness. Mozartian simplicity may well be unattainable by this stage, but there is no harm and indeed much gain in sensing a longing for, perhaps even catching a glimpse of, that not-so-long-vanished Elysium.  Of all the pianists I should never have expected to veer close to ‘period’ mannerism… Still, one cannot accuse Barenboim of resting upon his laurels.

Mark Berry

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