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Daniel Barenboim: Schubert Piano Sonatas, concert 1

Daniel Barenboim, musical polymath, is in town for a four-concert Schubert Project residency in which he will traverse all 11 of Schubert’s completed piano sonatas. Prior to the first concert, he unveiled a brand new piano – one with his name on it. The Barenboim piano was conceived and developed in a collaboration between Barenboim and Belgian piano maker Chris Maene, with the cooperation of Steinway. What makes this piano different from the modern concert grand is that it is straight strung, and Barenboim used a Liszt piano as the inspiration for his eponymous instrument. It is said to offer a greater variety of colour, transparency and clarity across its range. Audiences at Barenboim’s Schubert recitals will have the opportunity to hear for themselves this new piano in action.

Unsurprisingly, it was a full house at the Royal Festival Hall and there was a distinct buzz of anticipation and reverence ahead of the start of the concert. Sitting in the rear stalls didn’t really offer myself and my concert companions a chance to examine the piano in detail. The piano remained firmly closed, lid down, until a few moments before Barenboim took to the stage, and was closed up again during the interval.

The jury is still out on whether the Barenboim piano was noticeably different to a modern Steinway, and any clarity and crispness of articulation, or nuanced dynamics are surely the result of the pianist’s technique, not the piano: one would expect an artist of Barenboim’s calibre to make even the most beat-up church hall piano sound lovely.

The theme of the first of Barenboim’s Schubert concerts was the key of A, as he presented three sonatas from different periods in the composer’s life. The D537, in A minor, was composed by Schubert when he was 20 and is the earliest surviving completed piano sonata, though it was not published until 1852 as the Op. post. 164. It begins with a dotted motif followed by filigree semiquaver broken chords. It’s emotionally charged and already demonstrates Schubert’s skill in unexpected harmonic shifts which colour the music. The middle movement, in warm E major, is genial and nostalgic, with a theme that would be heard later in the concert (Schubert “exported” it as the Rondo theme of the final movement of the D959). Yet, typically of Schubert, the mood shifts during the trio, a chilly march in A minor. The finale has a Beethovenian cast, with a dash of Haydn’s wit, yet already full of Schubert’s trademark unexpected harmonic shifts and emotional volte-faces.

I think many of us were trying to hear whether the piano really sounded that different instead of concentrating on the music, but the opening Sonata was presented with energy, though not always entirely convincingly, and keen sense of Schubert’s tonal palette, especially in the final movement. The middle movement, whose theme was reprised later in the D959, began genially enough, but the middle section had an ominous tread, for which the bass notes of the piano were suitably rich and dark.

The first A major Sonata of the evening is known as “the little A major” and was the most genial of the three sonatas presented in the concert.  Barenboim created a sense of intimacy in the first movement, but again one had the sense he wasn’t entirely convinced by it himself. It continued into the ethereal slow movement, whose pianissimos were, at times, barely a whisper. The finale was lyrical and good-natured, the opening theme played with a songful elegance, though I felt he pushed the tempo a little too much for my taste so that some of the lyricism was lost.

After the interval was “my’ Sonata, the penultimate of Schubert’s piano sonatas, the D959 in A major, which I have (perhaps recklessly) set myself the task of learning. I was extremely curious to hear Barenboim’s take on this big work, not least whether he could carry the narrative of the first movement right through to the closing sentence of the finale. My difficulty with hearing other people’s versions of this sonata is that they often conflict with my own, which can make me the most pedantic of listeners. I spend a lot of time with this Sonata. To say I eat, drink and breathe it might be excessive, but I often find myself waking in the night and playing it through it my head. The opening statement, a chorale-like sentence, lacked real nobility and drive and the propulsion towards the suspension at the end of the passage was lost in some curious pulling about of the tempo. There were one or two rocky moments as some of the triplet figures were lost – and this issue reappeared in the finale, where perhaps Barenboim was tiring (this is a big work – lasting around 40 minutes, even without the exposition repeat in the first movement), and overall I felt the movement lacked power and drive.

The slow movement, about much has been said, written and surmised, a melancholy folksong with a storm at its centre, lacked cohesion and there were some serious memory issues towards the end. The movement seemed relentless rather than revelatory. However, the scherzo was bright and crisp, with some sensitive highlighting of the melodic line in the trio section. The finale seemed rushed, the triplets often losing clarity, but the sections in the coda where the music stalls, as if to take a long breath, to reflect on what has gone before, were perfectly paced and the closing statement, a recapitulation of the opening sentence from the first movement, was emphatic. The standing ovation which followed was as much for Barenboim the man, the demigod, as for the performance and the new piano.