Schubert from Lupu and Barenboim Graces Berlin’s New Pierre Boulez Saal

GermanyGermany Schubert: Radu Lupu, Daniel Barenboim (piano). Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 8.3.2017. (MB)

Schubert, Sonata in B-flat major, D 617; Fantasia in F minor, D 940; Divertissement sur des motifs originaux français, D 823

Schubert’s works for piano, four hands, make in some ways for strange concert music. It is certainly not what they were ‘intended’ to be, although we need not worry ourselves unduly about that; nor was much of the solo piano repertoire. An intimate space such as Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal (682 seats) works well in this respect: no need for grandstanding, every possibility of scaling down intimacy of response (for performers and audience alike), and perhaps even something not so very far away from the treat of overhearing a fine, ‘domestic’ performance. Not that most of us would have Daniel Barenboim and Radu Lupu in our drawing rooms, of course, but anyway…

The first of the programmed works here was the B-flat major Sonata, D 617, a piece I played many times as a teenager with friends (such is really the idea of these pieces). The pianists alternated between primo and secondo roles, Barenboim here the former, Lupu the latter. Barenboim’s opening flourish (and its repeat too) showed that there was plenty of room for a little showmanship; Schubert offers us here a mini-cadenza on the traditional dominant seventh, after all. I could not help but smile. But then, the music, in performance and score, retreated to a more intimate world; we might almost have been in a parlour, at least if we closed our eyes. The superlative acoustic certainly aided clarity, but an acoustic can only do so much; this was the players’ achievement too. Moreover, the way in which one heard phrases sigh and fall was unmistakeably theirs – and Schubert’s. The composer’s wonderful modulatory surprises thus registered, did their developmental work, without any need for exaggeration. Andante con moto is not a marking peculiar to Schubert, far from it, but it is perhaps particularly associated with or typical of him. Here, Barenboim and Lupu judged it perfectly: sad, rather than tragic, and with resolve. (It is perhaps as much a matter of mood as of speed, arguably more so.) Such preparation had Schubert’s later contrasts surprise us again – however much we might have ‘known’ what was coming. The strangeness of the harmony at the opening of the finale duly disconcerted. (When first playing the piece, I presumed I had misread it!) Just as important, it prepared us for the often surprising moods and paths to come. The movement’s gait, very tricky, was effortlessly well judged, or so it seemed. Episodes revealed their secrets neither too soon nor with too much delay, soon integrated into a broader aural canvas.

Our guides proved just as wise, and just as capable of surprising us with what we knew already, in the F minor Fantasia. Many of Schubert’s works for four hands may be overlooked, but there has never been any denying the greatness of this work. Lupu now took the upper part, Barenboim providing a typically sure harmonic foundation, with much interest in inner parts too, of course, from both of them: when Barenboim voiced a melody in the tenor, or Lupu in the alto, there was something of the soft-spoken sublime to what we heard, what we felt. Taken relatively swiftly, though far from unreasonably so, the music seemed to create its own insistency and unease, born both from rhythmic insistence and harmonic necessity; at any rate, there was no sense of insistence being applied to it. Its extraordinary tonal plan was navigated with just the understanding the eavesdropping listener requires to find his or her bearings – and to keep them. The mystery in those strange eruptions was not argued away, but it was never merely arbitrary. Strange, liminal passages made sense after the event, after new vistas had opened up before our ears in not entirely un-Mahlerian fashion. There were occasional smudges, but nothing to worry about; the overall direction was what really mattered. The fugal section showed just how misplaced were Schubert’s own fears – he considered taking a refresher course in counterpoint shortly before his death! – of inadequacy in that front; this was lived counterpoint, dynamically creating form. And yes, we were left in no doubt whatsoever that this was Schubert’s greatest work for piano, four hands.

After the interval came the Divertissement sur des motifs originaux français, D 823, Barenboim returning to primo, Lupu to secondo, the latter’s left-hand providing the most exquisite foundation for the musical activity above. There was, though, a grander, more public style in evidence too – rightly, given the nature of the music, often straining towards the orchestral, without that precluding the pianistically yielding. The players did not try to turn this music into something that it is not, yet nevertheless, through the excellence of largely unassuming advocacy, enlarged our ideas of what it might be, or perhaps better, of the value of what it is. The Andantino second movement showed a definite kinship with its counterpart in the Sonata. There was much to absorb and simply to enjoy in the inner parts, in the harmonies, but never at the expense of onward tread. (It seems almost impossible, at least for me, to write about Schubert’s music without using the phrase ‘onward tread’ at some point or other.) Until, that is, the strange, contrasting material made its presence felt. The lilt of the final movement was splendidly judged; it charmed without needing to try too hard. Again, a few slips did not detract from the overall view, and if the music, perhaps not always showing Schubert at his most inspired, goes on a little, one can live with those ‘heavenly lengths’. A delightful account of the Rondo in A major, D 951, proved a well chosen, greatly appreciated encore.

Schubert looms large in the programming here. His Der Hirt auf dem Felsen was given in the opening concert (by Barenboim, Jörg Widmann, and Anna Prohaska). Barenboim will shortly be performing Winterreise with Christian Gerhaher, as part of a multi-year project for different artists to perform all of Schubert’s songs at the hall. The indefatigable pianist-conductor-world citizen will also soon be performing all of the piano sonatas and, later this year, will conduct the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in the complete symphonies. Watch this space for some, at least, of those fruits…

Mark Berry

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