Thursday, 28 May 2015

Schubert piano sonatas (1) - Barenboim, 27 May 2015

Royal Festival Hall

Piano Sonata in A minor, D 537
Piano Sonata in A major, D 664
Piano Sonata in A major, D 959     

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

The excitement concerning Daniel Barenboim new piano did not necessarily augur well. A great deal of nonsense had been spoken and written before this first of four Schubert recitals. ‘The first new piano since XXXX’ was a common theme: a claim so misleading as to merit no further discussion. Moreover, whilst there is certainly no need to scorn possible technological developments, the last thing we want is for piano recitals to become more like their organ counterparts, players and audiences more interested in the instrument than in what is being played and how. I was certainly taken aback by the tone of the instrument, but not, I am afraid, in a good way. It struck me – and it is, of course, not always easy or even possible to distinguish between instrument and performance – as having managed to combine some of the less attractive features of a not entirely modern Steinway with those of a mid-nineteenth-century Erard. Barenboim has apparently extolled the virtues of different registers having more truly different characters: perhaps again, one might think more of different organ registrations. For me, however, there was far more in the way of loss in the apparent inability of different ranges of the keyboard to cohere as a single instrument – and still more so, in their tonal stridency, especially when playing forte or louder. There was, I grant, considerable clarity, often strikingly so; but is that one’s greatest priority for Schubert? I felt a little as I had when hearing Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing The Art of Fugue; it may have been interesting conceptually, but I did not like it very much.  I should happily have sacrificed some of that clarity for the warmth of a Bösendorfer, for me a far more satisfactory instrument in this and much other repertoire than a Steinway. On the other hand(s), maybe Barenboim needed to become more accustomed to his instrument; or maybe I was just reacting negatively to the shock of the new (which, frankly, did not sound very new at all).

My reaction to Aimard’s concert, however, had been a reaction to the performance, not to the instrument. If Barenboim’s performances had been more compelling, less patchy, I am sure the matter of the instrument, whether for good or for ill, would have assumed lesser importance. The opening A minor Sonata is a very difficult work to bring off; Barenboim, greatly to my surprise, did not come close to doing so. The strange swings of mood, curtailments of phrases, the necessary efforts to bring the notes together into a coherent whole – perhaps not unlike the keys on the new or any instrument? – can, in the right hands, make one think, as so often with Schubert, of Webern. Not here: offhand, I cannot recall so charmless, almost literalist – albeit with strange interventions from time to time – performance from Barenboim. There was, one might argue, a laudable refusal to sentimentalise, to consign Schubert to the dubious clutches of the Biedermeier; but what was there beyond that? If I contrasted the performance with one I heard from him a few years ago of Mozart’s great sonata in the same key, admittedly a far superior work, then the drama, the poise, the beauty, the anger, all those and many other qualities were not only absent but had no evident replacements. It was, frankly, an ordeal, rendered all the more so by the harshness of the instrument.

The ‘little’ A major Sonata, D 664, fared better. Barenboim and his piano seemed better attuned to moments of hushed intimacy; and, to be fair, the passages in the higher treble, at whatever level of the dynamic range, showed capacity to captivate, to draw one in. There was much, however, that was so brusque as to sound merely perverse. Moreover, it was not really until the third movement that Barenboim’s greatest inheritance from Furtwängler, his generally striking ability to hear and to communicate the longest of musical lines, was evident. Weirdly, I felt as though I had been hearing a pianist more influenced by the likes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. How I had longed for Sviotoslav Richter!

Parts of the late A major Sonata, D 959, impressed, although it was difficult to avoid the suspicion that Barenboim wished he were playing Beethoven. Heavenly lengths threatened to seem merely meandering. Technical difficulties were a little too numerous too. There were moments of high, if not necessarily appropriate, drama, and splendid contrast – the ending of the first movement, for instance – but the integrative mastery on display in his recent performance of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony was, to my ears, strangely absent. Oddest of all was the slow movement, in which time seemed to stand still, but not in that magically ‘suspended’ way that often comes to mind in Schubert. Instead, lines led nowhere, and the music ground almost to a halt. The final two movements sounded relatively conventional, but some way short of inspired. It is certainly not a matter of Barenboim having no feeling for Schubert; I have heard him give wonderful performances, whether as conductor, collaborative pianist, or soloist. For whatever reason, however, tonight was not the night. An audience that had cheered him to the rafters before he had played a single note begged to differ, but I was far from the only dissenter. And this is a musician I admire greatly.