Friday 17 August 2012

Salzburg Festival (2) - Daniel Barenboim: Schubert, 15 August 2012

Grosses Festspielhaus

Schubert – Piano Sonata in G major, D 894
Piano Sonata in C minor, D 958

Daniel Barenboim is to give three Schubert recitals at this year’s Salzburg Festival. This, the first, offered two sonatas, the G major, D 894, and the C minor, D 958; the second will present the Four Impromptus, D 935, and the A major sonata, D 959; in the third, Barenboim will play the Four Impromptus, D 899, and, inevitably, the B-flat sonata, D 960. Rightly esteemed in the music of Beethoven and Mozart, despite sniping from the ‘authentically’ inclined, for some reason Barenboim never seems to have been quite so acclaimed in the solo piano music of Schubert. This recital at any rate suggested that his Schubert ought to be similarly honoured.

Barenboim can be frustratingly variable, of course, both as conductor and as pianist. In both roles, there can occasionally be a tendency to rely on extraordinary natural talent, when a little more careful practice would also help. The seriousnesss of his approach on this occasion was confirmed by the very opening of the G major sonata. It was characterised by some of the most sheerly beautiful piano playing I can recall: I do not think Barenboim was using the soft pedal, but somehow he created a similar effect by touch alone. So much for the claims of period instrumentalists! More importantly, there was always purpose to the course of the movement. Here and throughout, Barenboim showed that very same awareness and ability to communicate the harmonic purpose of a sonata movement that characterised his recent Beethoven symphony cycle at the Proms. The difference between Beethoven and Schubert was apparent, the utterly characteristic modulations and key relations – especially those involving intervals of a third – both relished and meaningful. Yet one never had the feeling that Schubert was somehow a poor relation, or at least to be considered as deviating from Beethoven’s path; Schubert was himself, and all the better for that. (There is, incidentally, not better illustration of the difference between the piano writing of the two composers than the spacing of the opening chords to this first movement and that of the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.) The Andante was flowing in the best sense – that is, not the modern euphemism for recklessly, pointlessly, fast – and conveyed a real sense of Schubert the Lieder-dramatist, doubtless in part a tribute to Barenboim’s experience with recitalists from Fischer-Dieskau to Quasthoff. The hushed playing of the third movement took one’s breath away as surely as Schubert’s earlier modulations, whilst the anticipations of Brahms in rhythmic inflections of Allegretto gave cause both for thought and for straightforward enjoyment.

The C minor sonata received an equally distinguished performance. Again, its opening chords marked out the character both of movement and work, quite different from its predecessor, and equally quite different from the C minor daemon of Beethoven. (I know: I cannot quite help myself making the comparison...) Progression and line were second to none, again at least as sure as Barenboim’s work as symphonic conductor. The Adagio was possessed of a sublimity which, if not quite same as that of late Beethoven, was not entirely different either – and that again was in large part a consequence of harmonic understanding, as well, of course, as beauty of touch. The third movement exhibited close kinship, especially in terms of its minuet, with its counterpart in D 894, some of Barenboim’s playing as delicate as one might hope for in a Bach musette. The tragedy of the finale as rendered all the more meaningful on account of its chiaroscuro; tragic drive takes many forms, few of them as unrelenting as many seem to think. Barenboim showed himself throughout the evening a master musical dramatist; this was Wagnerian Schubert and all the better for it. I had doubts about the suitability of the Grosses Festspielhaus as a venue for a piano recital. His playing drew one in and banished such thoughts immediately. Why is Barenboim so underrated as a Schubertian?