The Barenboim Project at Royal Festival Hall – Schubert Piano Sonatas (2/4) – D575, D894 & D958

Piano Sonata in B, D575
Piano Sonata in G, D894
Piano Sonata in C minor, D958

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 29 May, 2015
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Daniel Barenboim (piano) RoyalFestival Hall © Chris ChristodoulouThe second leg of Daniel Barenboim’s Royal Festival Hall Schubert series introduced me to his new piano (news link below), a superb instrument, one with a warm bass, a pearly treble and an enviable evenness and clarity across its range. Barenboim’s discretion with dynamics (especially down the scale) was also admirable, certainly wide but with fortissimos never strained, edgy or ugly.

On the debit side was the lack of exposition repeats in all three first movements: parsimonious in D575, sort of understandable given the expanse of D894, but imbalancing the whole in the C minor, in which the finale seemed too long by comparison. On his recently released DG set of the eleven Piano Sonatas that Schubert completed (and which he is playing during this Project, so no room for the C-major D840, ‘Reliquie’, for example), Barenboim observes all repeats. Not doing so in this concert may point to pragmatism: a wish to avoid self-exhaustion across the series (four recitals of intellectually demanding music over seven days), or a consideration to the audience, or a desire not to underline what can be Schubert’s prolixity at times.

Returning to credit, there was much to admire. Barenboim may not have a transcendental technique, but he is an honest and hard-working musician, so finger-slips and fudges counted for little when set against his caring for Schubert’s scores and his grasp of them. The B major Sonata was ruminative and enjoyed Barenboim’s relaxed affection, the four movements made into two indivisible pairs, the slow one simple but touching, and the finale nifty and happy-go-lucky. Elsewhere Barenboim teased us, and also emphasised those intervals and chords that are inimitably this composer’s.

Daniel Barenboim (piano) Royal Festival Hall © Chris ChristodoulouBarenboim opened the wonderful G-major Sonata sotto voce and in solemn style, going on to capture discerningly its song, dance, reverie and rhetoric. He did perhaps make heavy weather of the Scherzo but the Trio was magically ‘distant’, and the emergence of the chorale-like tune in the finale was certainly spiritual.

Whether the C-minor Sonata (the first of Schubert’s final three) added up is a moot point. The foreshortening of the opening movement didn’t help, and although Barenboim was fiery (without force) and flexible – expressing the music in public and private terms – there was also an element of preciousness that restricted the ‘storm and stress’ elements of this concentrated masterpiece. The slow movement was a little too restless, but I am not going to forget some of the extraordinarily quiet playing in the finale, which itself perhaps veered too much away from what is usually a demonic moto perpetuo.

Of course, new perspectives in music are always welcome, and I have a feeling that Barenboim’s prudence and his mild-mannered piano in this work will come back to haunt me; as I write this his canter (rather than gallop) through the finale remains vivid, as do those dips to near-inaudibility (otherworldliness) during it, without causing any allegations of contrivance or affectation, and will continue to have an alchemical grasp on my senses.

Reservations aside, Barenboim worked the miracle of shrinking the Royal Festival Hall to the size of a salon, as if playing at home for a few friends. With no requirement for TV screens or any other artificial or distracting baggage, and with the lighting dimmed low, Barenboim drew us into Schubert’s worlds, made us listen. It was just him, his piano and the music. Quite frankly, it’s all you need.

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