Schubertreise – Concert III – 8th July

Violin Sonata in G, K309
Phantasy, Op.47
Piano Sonata in A minor, D537
Piano Piece, Op.11/2
Violin Sonata in E minor, Op.36a

Paul Barritt (violin) & James Lisney (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 July, 2001
Venue: Purcell Room, London

For the third concert of his enterprising Schubertreise, James Lisney adopted a lateral approach to repertoire that was convincing in practice. How positive the contrast between Mozart’s G major Sonata and Schoenberg’s Phantasy. Complementary too, as the former is very much a sonata for piano with violin accompaniment, whereas the latter is designated just the opposite. In the Mozart, Lisney was ’first among equals’ – shaping detail naturally and unobtrusively, though Paul Barritt’s tone was a shade too astringent in the opening movement’s wistful ’Adagio’; repeating both this and the ’Allegro’ is not perhaps necessary in so modest if attractive a work. If the ensuing ’Variations’ – on a theme that bears a striking resemblance to Pachelbel’s Canon – verge on the perfunctory, Lisney and Barritt were right to linger over the fifth one, the sonata’s true centre of gravity.

Dating from 1949, Schoenberg’s Phantasy is his last completed instrumental work, and continues on from the String Trio in reducing serial method to its motivic bare bones, so that an emotional immediacy informs every gesture. The rugged violin line was actually written in its entirety before a note of the piano part was added – which, in its punctuating and demarcation of the music’s intuitive form, is far more than mere ’accompaniment’. Barritt and Lisney combined control with impulsiveness in a gripping performance.

Lisney then rounded off the first half with the first of Schubert’s A minor sonatas, more interesting in its formal process than in the intrinsic quality of its music, and sympathetically played here. The intensification evident in the first movement repeats was thoughtfully conveyed, though more could have been made of the finale’s coda – an early and startling example of Schubert opening up of tonal space with the minimum of modulation.

The second half centred on Ferruccio Busoni, still something of an enigma among composers, but one whose tenet of the relative advancement of musical thought readily anticipates the present pluralist era. His 1909 ’concert interpretation’ of the second of Schoenberg’s Op.11 pieces is a magnificent instance of creative misunderstanding. Schoenberg thought in terms of ideas to be realised in sound; Busoni in terms of sound as articulated by ideas. In making Schoenberg more pianistic, Busoni rounds off its formal asymmetry and distributes its texture evenly across the keyboard – in the process diffusing its expressive intensity. As the coming-together of two creative geniuses on different wavelengths, however, it remains a priceless document, and justified every moment of the finesse that Lisney invested in it.

The Second Violin Sonata (not so in Busoni’s involved chronology) goes back over a decade to the point at which Busoni began the creative shift from pianist to composer. Although he was to compose for a further quarter-century, the sonata is his last major chamber work, and a distinct one-off in its combining of Brahmsian formal severity with Franckian thematic fluidity. If the opening ’Langsam’ too obviously confronts rather than elides its themes, and the brief ’Presto’ feels almost a self-contained character piece, the substantial ’Variations’, on a Bach chorale theme, constitute a cumulative unfolding and circular intensification such as Busoni would refine in subsequent piano and orchestral works. Interpretatively, it is a difficult work to bring off, but Barritt and Lisney succeeded admirably; making the most of virtuoso interplay while investing the latter stages with the elevated emotion always evident when the composer has recourse to his ’spiritual mentor’. This was a powerful and moving culmination to an absorbing recital.

  • Further concerts in the Schubertreise series on September 19 and December 17
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